Changing the size of the mesh

Emer O’Toole relates the misadventures of David Gilmour and her reactions to same to, first, her struggles with devising a new curriculum for an introduction to Irish theatre, and, second, internet dating.

Yes, internet dating. I’m new in town, and I’ve joined a site for the first time. Having indulged in outrageous fanfaronade on my profile page and started shopping for mates, I noticed that hardly any of the other singletons on sale – male or female – listed fiction by women in their “favourite books” section. Were they afraid they’d catch pregnancy or menopause from female writers or something? I changed my profile to stipulate that I only wanted to hear from people who read books by women.

Then something weird happened. People started messaging me about their relationships with gender and literature. Like, lots of people. The messages ranged from good (the person who wrote to say that they’d changed their profile to honour female authors), to bad (the person who listed six male writers on their page, but explained they didn’t define themselves around literature), to ugly (the person who said “I like motorcycles, but I don’t expect you to like motorcycles – why do I have to like books by women?” Answer: because motorcycles are not one half of the human race).

Hmm. That’s not a good answer.

A lot of things follow from the fact that women are half the human race, but having to like books by them isn’t one of them, at least not directly. There’s a case that can be made, and O’Toole goes on to make a case, but that answer doesn’t make it, and it echoes the dopy stereotype of what’s meant by affirmative action. (She could have said, for instance, “I didn’t say you had to like them, I stipulated people who read them, and the reason for that is that no one should systematically ignore all books by half the human race.”)

People wrote to tell me that, in spite of their all male book lists, they didn’t discriminate when assessing literature. These were just the books that they, personally, liked best. Ergo, I was being judgmental. I could have ignored them, but my pedagogical urges are just too strong. I found myself explaining that, of course, I didn’t imagine anyone was thinking “screw those silly scribbling bitches, they can’t teach me nothing, yo” when filling out online dating profiles. I explained that we live in a society that teaches people to value male thought, art, and leadership above female thought, art and leadership. I explained the difference between active and passive discrimination.

That’s more the kind of thing.

It’s funny how people (I’m sure I do it too) assume the sifting process somehow magically chooses only the genuinely actually factually Best. Everybody should be much more sharply aware of what happened when orchestras started doing blind auditions. OMG would you believe it suddenly women started being hired! It turned out that when you couldn’t see that they were women they were just as good as the not-women. It’s almost as if the sifting process sifts for gender first instead of for quality first.


  1. rnilsson says

    Yes. And that method of testing blind, behind a sheer curtain, was certainly in use in the early 70’s, at least for loudspeakers by audiophile societies and, I think (though my recollection is vaguer on this point) for vetting soloists in recruiting for symphony orchestras. 40 years later, is it still regarded as new, unproven or even threatening? Why?

  2. Julius says

    Hmm, as I read this I glanced over at the bookcase next to my desk, and I realised that all but one of the books I can see from where I’m sitting were written by men. Which is making me think. Of course I don’t discriminate actively against women (or any other group of) writers but the end result is pretty stark.
    (In my defence this isn’t a huge amount of books – most of them are still back at my parents’ house, but I’m pretty sure the shelf there doesn’t look much different. It’s also not counting e-books, which would shift the numbers very slightly.)

    Not exactly an earth-shattering contribution to the debate, I know, but a little note to say that posts like this do help to open eyes and raise awareness…

  3. S Mukherjee says

    All the people who insist that they aren’t sexist or anything, it just so happens that they don’t like any women authors’ work — they remind me of those white Americans who bluster that they aren’t racist or anything, but it just so happens that they aren’t romantically attracted to any black people. Hmmm…

  4. says

    FWIW I recall my sisters (clarinetist & flutist) mentioning orchestral auditions being done with a curtain between performer & judges in the 1970s or 80s.

    Also FWIW most of my fiction reading is Science Fiction & one of my favorite authors is Lois McMaster Bujold. One technology in the background of her stories is the ‘uterine replicator’ & its use in both beneficial & harmful ways is often a major plot point.

  5. thephilosophicalprimate says

    And while the practice of blind auditions vastly improved the representation of women in orchestras, women are still vastly unrepresented among conductors. I’m sure that it’s simply a coincidence that conductors cannot be evaluated blindly.

  6. Silentbob says

    I’ve always thought one of the flaws of online dating (in which I have never participated) is that you get to specify your requirements so precisely. I say flaw because in my experience very often the most successful relationships are the unexpected – people who would never have matched some predefined set of criteria.

    An analogy could be drawn between restricting your dating pool to, say, people 30-35 of slim athletic build within a 100km radius who like Woody Allen and fishing (or whatever), and restricting your reading to manly men who are not Chinese.

  7. neuroturtle says


    I just saw her do a reading yesterday at the Baltimore Book Festival. She did a half hour read-aloud from Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. It got me really interested in reading her work, and your comment reinforces that. =)

  8. theoreticalgrrrl says

    Do you think David Gilmour actually read a lot of female authors and then came to the conclusion he doesn’t “love” them? I highly doubt it. I doubt he ever even bothers picking up a book that has a female name on it.

  9. Minnow says

    It’s funny how people (I’m sure I do it too) assume the sifting process somehow magically chooses only the genuinely actually factually Best.

    But here people are not selecting what they think is best, but what they most like. It’s not necessarily the same. The trouble is that the sample is likely to be very small. I read a lot of women and rate a few of them very highly but I think an honest list of say half a dozen favourite books (decided on re-reads) would be pretty boy heavy (but there would be one woman in it at least I think). It doesn’t mean much.

  10. says

    It’s everywhere. I tuned into a pre-set Pandora station called “90s Alternative.” Guess what: it was entirely male musicians. As if Hole, Bikini Kill, Veruca Salt, and Sleator-Kinney meant absolutely nothing to the 90s grunge/alternative movement. Once I added a couple of female seed artists to the station details, suddenly there’s tons of great songs by female artists playing. But of course. Of COURSE anyone just tuning in to listen to 90s alternative rock would hear nothing but men unless they specified otherwise. That’s just the way things are, right?

  11. sisu says

    neuroturtle @8: Bujold is awesome! I really liked her Chalion and Sharing Knife series – they’re more speculative fiction than sci-fi. Octavia Butler also wrote excellent spec fic/sci-fi – check out her Xenogenesis series.

  12. otrame says

    Since I am a big fan of British mysteries from the 30s-40s, I read a lot of women. In fact, though I could be wrong, it is my impression that such fiction was the first time in history that women seriously dominated a field.

    Note that 30s-40s mysteries in the US are mostly by men.

    I have almost exclusively read Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, and Christie in this genre. It makes me think I should look to see what men were writing in that period in Britain. I’ve read a little Collins, but that is all. Hmmm. Will have to look into that.

  13. otrame says

    Occurs to me that the above at 13 could be interpreted in a way I did not intend. I am not claiming that the rare situation in which women dominated a very small and specialized form of light fiction during a couple of decades in one country in some way makes up for all the ways that women writers are so often ignored in other areas. That is obviously nonsense.

  14. yahweh says

    Gilmour: slumped on couch with beer in front of the telly:
    “If you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.” [belches]

    Life imitating The Onion.

  15. carlie says

    sallystrange – given that the whole point of Pandora is to introduce you to artists you will like but didn’t know existed, that’s extra disappointing.

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