Ah spring, that silly season of award lists, recommended reading lists, and erasure. Time for my annual blog post, for lo, nothing ever changes.
Erasure is such an ugly word, with all its connotations of non-existence, of wiping out accomplishments and work and history. At times an ugly word is exactly the right word. Erasure is so much more than “forgetting” to add women (including QUILTBAG and minority women) to a list, or not being able to think of any women who’ve written even a single worthy book.
And let it be said that I don’t buy the chorus of baffled–and totally disingenuous–cries of “but I don’t understand why you’re angry.”
Bullshit. You do understand. Every single one of you. And that in a nutshell is why I’m angry, and why so many women writers are angry.
Women understand. Erasure is nothing new for us.
This photograph of Marion Langhorne Howard Brickwedde (1909-1997) with Ferdinand G. Brickwedde (1903-1989) was published with the caption: “Dr. F. G. Brickwedde and his wife with the apparatus for making heavy water.” Marion Brickwedde earned a B.S. in chemistry (1929) and M.S. in physics (1930) from the University of Georgia. During her career, she taught physics at George Washington University and Pennsylvania State University, and was on the research staffs of the U.S. National Bureau of Standards and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Pictured with her husband, those accomplishments vanished.
Bertha Parker Pallan [Cody] (1907-1978) is considered one of the first female Native American archaeologists. The caption to this photograph said that Bertha Pallan was an “expedition secretary” who was demonstrating “the difference in size of early type [small] and large type atlatl darts from Gypsum Cave.” Bertha Pallan’s knowledge and field experience vanishes by labeling her a secretary and not an archaeologist.
Biochemist and bacteriologist Ruby Hirose researched serums and antitoxins at the William S. Merrell Laboratories. The original caption for this photo read: “Dr. R. Hirose, American-born Japanese girl scientist on the research staff of the Wm. S. Merrell biological laboratories” I can’t even believe the dismissive and racist “Japanese girl scientist” label stuck on Dr. Hirose.
How many of you have heard of Jacqueline Cochran? She was the first woman to break the sound barrier.
Or Katharine Dexter McCormick? She was a U.S. biologist, suffragist, philanthropist, and funded most of the research necessary to develop the first birth control pill.
Margaret Harwood directed the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket Island, and ran its female-founded and female-run nonprofit science education institute.
Beatrice “Tilly” Shilling was a prize-winning motorcycle racer and aeronautical engineer.
Maud Slye was a pathologist and noted cancer researcher She was also a prolific published poet.
Mary Roberts Rinehart, is considered to have invented the “Had-I-But-Known” school of mystery writing. She also created a costumed supercriminal called “the Bat”, who was cited by Bob Kane as one of the inspirations for his “Batman.”
I could name hundreds of women scientists, mathematicians, artists, activists, pilots, and writers who accomplished amazing things, and wrote amazing books, during their lifetimes. And for every one of these women, whose lives aren’t close to ancient history, you have to dig into historical newspaper and Smithsonian archives to find mentions of them. Sometimes you have to dig deep.
This isn’t counting the thousands of photographs I found doing novel research where women’s names, their identity and history, has been erased. These women are only remembered as wife of Mr. Whatever, or listed as wife and daughter of Senator Importance. They don’t exist as individuals, as people.
Which brings me back to women genre writers. Given the surface evidence, we don’t exist either. Other than one or two names that appear again and again, we don’t make recommended lists, award lists, year’s best lists, or most anticipated upcoming books lists.
And I’ll tell you, each and every time I see lists, or blog posts, written by other women who list nothing but books by white men? I don’t even know what to call that feeling.
The erasure of women is built into the system, from the marketing level on down. Our work is considered lesser and slight, but if you do write anything with any meaning or depth, then you’re boring. The message from people who should be our peers is stay in your place, and don’t try to play in the boys’ sandbox. Women don’t write “real” SF or epic fantasy, or even real fantasy–whatever that is.
You have to be the most thick skinned, stubborn, and determined person who has ever lived to stick with this. At times you have to nurse that tiny flicker of anger into a roaring bonfire and hold it close. Anger is a survival skill for women writers. Anger can lend you strength.
Luckily, women are good at surviving and holding each other together. We’ve had more than enough practice while dealing with attempts to wipe us off the publishing record. Most of that ongoing support happens in the background, where no one but other women can see. Much as I’d like that to change now, today, even in 2016 it’s still the wiser move to go slow.
Because if women writers are too public about supporting each other, or network too much where others can see, they tend to be viewed as conspiring to bring down all the men. Words like equal shares of marketing budgets, fairness on award lists, and balance in numbers of reviews are interpreted as “Mine, mine! All of publishing belongs to meeeeee!”
That unleashes all kinds of hell falling on women’s heads, again from people who are supposed to be our peers. Anger can keep you strong, but it can also level major cities.
One would almost think women writers were witches, with the ability to erase men’s accomplishments and deny them a career.
And we all know what they did to witches. They cursed them with the need to write.