Being a Woman

Normally I don’t bother too much about the fact that I’m a woman. It’s just another thing about me, like my height or weight. But this weekend I felt particularly noticeably female, in an uncomfortable way. Here’s what happened.

On Saturday, after wearing my bike shorts for most of the day, I decided to wear my favorite sundress. It’s super comfortable, sleeveless with straps that cross over the back, form-fitting around the torso and top, and skirt a few inches above my knees. The weather was perfect for this dress, and it was definitely the last time I’ll wear it until probably next July, so I made sure to bring it and wear it on this trip.

After freshening up from my ride, I had about an hour and a half until dinner, so I decided to go out for a walk around Santa Rosa to kill some time and stretch my legs.

I started in Juilliard Park, which was mostly empty except for a couple homeless guys who leered from a park bench at me as I walked by. That kind of set the tone for the rest of that walk.

Thereafter I found Santa Rosa to be a mix of affluence and poverty cheek-by-jowl. One block you’d find tidy old houses, beautifully kept up and seasonally decorated; the next block, dilapidated homes, unkempt yards, cars on blocks. I walked from the adorable Railroad Park area, with its tourist shops and boutique hotels, right past a shelter for homeless people nary a block away.

As I went by the homeless shelter, a bunch of homeless men were standing or sitting around the outside of the building. As I approached, pretty much all of them stared at me. A couple of them stood up and watched. I hurried by, and looked back a couple times. They kept watching until I got around the corner.

After that, I found my way back to the bike festival area and stayed there until I met my friends for dinner. As I waited, the plaza slowly emptied and more and more homeless guys came out. One cadged some food off a guy eating; others just wandered around. 

We finished dinner after 9:00, and I had left my car down by Juilliard Park, several long blocks away down some darker roads. The guys outside the homeless shelter, and the guys in the park, and the guys who live in the greenbelt down by the river that ran through town all came to mind again. I don’t want to be prejudiced or make unfair assumptions about people… but I also didn’t feel comfortable out by myself after dark.

I asked John to escort me to my car.

And that, right there, is being a woman. I felt like I needed to bring a man along with me as I walked back to the car after dark, just to be safe. 

——

PS: I know gender, sexual identity, being a woman, #MeToo, the Kavanaugh hearings/confirmation, the President’s behavior towards women, even police shootings… all these and more make this a fraught topic. I also know I’m a fortunate, nay, privileged white woman, my life was probably never in danger, and I may be making a mountain out of a molehill — a molehill that some women deal with every day. But I also know I’ll think and act differently after this experience; I may not wear that dress again with confidence, because of those looks and that feeling. So I wanted to share.

Inherit the Sexism

I was proud and excited when my sister, writing as Gwen C. Katz, author of Among the Red Stars, kicked off the “describe yourself how a male author would describe you” phenomenon. It’s a topic I know she’s passionate about, and I completely agree with her points.

I’m reading the book Inherit the Stars, by James P. Hogan, and it’s a perfect example of what she was talking about. It was written in 1977, and envisions a near-future scenario in which people are colonizing the Moon and Mars. On the Moon, they discover a mummified human body in a space suit–and the whole thing is 50,000 years old! Dum da dum!

I’m not going to ruin the story; Mr. Hogan did that himself, the way he visualized women in the future. Here’s what I mean.

  1. The first woman character doesn’t appear until page 28. A couple other ladies are mentioned, but only as a clerk or receptionist.  The book leans towards more hard science and explaining technical details, and none of the main characters are technically competent women. Not one. This is particularly noticeable when the author has characters say things like, “I’ll have the boys in the lab” do X, Y, or Z, or “The time has come, gentlemen, to dally no longer…” (p. 57)

    Caveat: I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but I’ve read it before and I don’t recall any technically competent women appearing later.

  2. When the first female character is mentioned, here’s her full introduction:

    Lyn Garland, his personal assistant, greeted him from the screen. She was twenty-eight, pretty, and had long red hair and big, brown, intelligent eyes. (p 28)

    Thank goodness he included “intelligent” in the description. Otherwise I might’ve thought she was just a piece of ass stuck in there to keep the guys interested!

    Garland doesn’t get any actual dialogue during that introduction, however, beyond saying “Sure thing” to the boss’s request to bring in coffee. As noted previously, she’s not actually a researcher or engineer, like the other characters; she’s a secretary.

  3. After her introduction, Garland disappears for 20 pages, during which it’s all dudes talking technical stuff. (Way too complicated for the ladies!) She finally reappears on page 48 as the two main guys are trying to figure out what this mysterious table of numbers and letters means. Here’s how it goes down. I’m going to reproduce it in its full glory:

    His mumblings were interrupted as the door opened behind them. Lyn Garland walked in.

    “Hi, you guys. What’s showing today?” She moved over to stand between them and peered into the tank. “Say, tables! How about that? Where’d the come from, the books?”

    “Hello, lovely,” Gray said with a grin. “Yep.” He nodded in the direction of the scanner.

    “Hi,” Hunt answered, at last tearing his eyes away from the image. “What can we do for you?”

    She didn’t reply at once, but continued staring into the tank.

    “What are they? Any ideas?”

    “Don’t know yet. We were just talking about it when you came in.”

    She marched across the lab and bent over to peer into the top of the scanner. The smooth, tanned curve of her leg and the proud thrust of her behind under her thin skirt drew an exchange of approving glances from the two English scientists. She came back and studied the image once more.

    “Looks like a calendar, if you ask me,” she told them. Her voice left no room for dissent.

    Gray laughed. “Calendar, eh? You sound pretty sure of it. What’s this–a demonstration of infallible feminine intuition or something?” He was goading playfully.

    She turned to confront him with out-thrust jaw and hands planted firmly on hips. “Listen, Limey–I’ve got a right to an opinion, okay? So, that’s what I think it is. That’s my opinion.”

    “Okay, okay.” Gray held up his hands. “Let’s not start the War of Independence all over again. I’ll note it in the lab file: ‘Lyn thinks it’s a–‘”

    “Holy Christ!” Hunt cut him off midsentence. He was staring wide-eyed into the tank. “Do you know, she could be right! She could just be bloody right!”

    [the guys go into why she might be right. Then they ask:]

    “What on Earth made you say a calendar?”

    She shrugged and pouted her lips. “Don’t know, really. The book over there looks like a diary. Every diary I ever saw had calendars in it. So, it had to be a calendar.”

    Hunt sighed. “So much for the scientific method.”… (p. 48-50)

    What does one even say to this? How do I even start to express the depth of insulted disgust I feel at the entire scene?

    The girl gets to contribute, but not before the dudes lasciviously ogle her ass, proving she really is just there as a delectable hunk of meat. At first the men completely dismiss her insight as “female intuition.” It’s not until a man thinks she might be right that they start taking the idea seriously. And then, when she explains her reasoning, the men dismiss her logic as flawed, even though it’s actually reasonable: Nobody knows what the book mentioned is; it’s some alien artifact. It could very well be a journal or diary. But nooooo, some girl came up with that conclusion, so it’s clearly not in keeping with the “scientific method.”

    A little later, the same scientist is in a meeting with all the technical folks, Hunt goes on to introduce Garland’s ideas, without any attribution, as if they were his own:

    “What’s that?” asked a voice.

    “It’s from one of the pocket books,” Hunt replied. “I think the book is something not unlike a diary. I also believe that that”–he pointed at the sheet–“could well be a calendar.” He caught a sly wink from Lyn Garland and returned it.

    He then goes on to say he analyzed the pattern on the page and that the book is remarkably like a diary with a calendar. This, after mocking and poh-poh-ing a woman’s analysis that reached that very conclusion! So much for the scientific method, indeed.

That’s pretty much as far as I’ve gotten so far, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I want to continue.

I know the book was written in a different era, with different norms towards women. But the author was envisioning the future. He wrote about flying cars with internet connectivity, streaming movies, and video-conferencing. In the book, the world is peaceful and everyone is prosperous, and as a result, racism and classism and all that other stuff is gone. There’s no climate change. Countries pour their energy and extra resources (saved because they don’t need big militaries) into exploring space.

And yet, women only ever appear as young ladies in tight skirts serving the powerful, smart men as secretaries. The author couldn’t see past his day and age to envision a world in which women stood on equal footing with men, where a woman’s intelligence was as respected as a man’s, where a woman could lead men or participate equally in technical discussions with men.

And you know what? I think he was right. Forty years later, we’re still a society where ladies are just pussies to be grabbed by powerful men who then boast about their exploits on the record and still get elected to the highest office in the land. So I can’t really complain that the book isn’t realistic. The only unrealistic part, I guess, is the flying cars and the global peace and prosperity.