an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Essai a la facon de Montaigne – a discursive piece, mainly about women

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Mary Somerville, physicist, mathematician, autodidact, genius, now featured on the Scottish ten pound note

I’m at Adelaide writer’s week, in the book tent. I’ve not been to writer’s week for some years. These days I read almost entirely non-fiction, mostly science for the scientifically challenged. I feel as if, over the years, I’ve been suffering the literary version of a gender crisis. You might call it a genre crisis. I’ve been categorised wrongly – I’ve categorised myself wrongly – in the arts instead of the science section. Though of course I want to feel comfortable in both. Mostly I feel comfortable in neither.

I glance at a book called Beyond Veiled Clichés. It looks to be a book about western misrepresentations of women under Islam. Ah, the veil. I’m with Ayaan Hirsi Ali on this, to obsess over women’s headgear misses the point. To me the point is patriarchy.

I loathe patriarchy. I really mean that. I’d like to stab it in the eye and watch it die slowly, writhing in agony. I often have these nasty macho fantasies. The other day I read the opening to Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave, which describes a fantasy of torturing and murdering Hitler. It validates, in some sense, my own brutish fantasies, vis-à-vis Trump, Putin, Stalin, and others I’m ashamed to admit. At least I’ve never had such fantasies about women, which goes to the fact that men are in all cultures more violent than women, and their violence is directed mostly – but far from always – at other men. But I know also that some women have such fantasies; we’re different in degree, not in kind, I hope.

But I wonder if Beyond Veiled Clichés has much to say about patriarchy. Certainly a book called Beyond Patriarchy would interest me more. And I certainly don’t want to get started on middle eastern cultures, our own is bad enough. On the way to writer’s week I passed through the ground floor of a major department store, a cathedral-like space dedicated to the worship of beauty culture, someone’s idea of femininity. Or fem-inanity. Here, and only here, is where I declare myself a new-ager, favouring the natural over all those chemicals. And they don’t even have to reveal the ingredients. Selling a dream that mostly isn’t worth having, at inflated prices. Women’s clothing, hairstyles and other paraphernalia all cost more than their mostly perfunctory male counterparts, yet I can’t help but notice women earn, on average, quite a bit less than men. I’ll be long dead before it all gets overturned, yet I’m confident it will, which will help ensure the survival of the species.

And now it’s International Women’s Day, how coincidental. We don’t have an International Men’s Day, we certainly don’t need one, and that’s the indicator of women’s situation, when there’s no need for an IWD, we’ll have made it. So, a bit of history. March 8 was first mooted as an IWD of sorts way back in 1910, at an International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen. Unlike women, socialists are a bit thin on the ground these days, so it’s fascinating that in Russia – that country that Putin is so happy to drive backwards at full tilt – March 8 was declared a national holiday in 1917, when women gained universal suffrage. On March 8 of that year, women textile workers held a massive demonstration in Petrograd, which some historians claim to mark the beginning of the Russian revolution. Hoping for another one there soon. But that March 8 date seems to have resonated since 1910. On that date in 1914 Germany held an IWD to promote women’s right to vote, but they had to lose a war first, and women didn’t get the vote there till 1919. Interestingly on that same day, March 8 1914 there was a march in London for women’s suffrage, during which Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested. So, definitely a worthy day.

A day to look back and look forward. And to examine the state of things for women right now. We still have a big problem, in Australia and other advanced nations, with women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) fields. Our 45th parliament is composed of 32% women (44% Labor, 21% Liberal). Compare 31% New Zealand, 29% Canada. These percentages are gradually increasing, not fast enough. A quick look at a government website shows that of 41 front-benchers (ministers, junior and assistant ministers), 8 are women, not sufficient, and of course we’ve only had one PM in our history. In the US congress, again the left outperforms the right in female representation, though by a higher percentage. There are currently 106 women of the 535 reps from both houses – that’s only 19.8%. There’s 79 Democrats versus 27 Republicans, almost a 3:1 ratio. All this is a crude measure of political power, but it indicates something, and it certainly makes me frustrated. I dare not look at the corporate sectors of these nations, where arguably the real power lies. Interestingly, the proportion of female judges across Europe is 51% (as of late 2016), but Britain lags behind (England and Wales 30%, Scotland – my birth country – only 24%). Surprisingly, Romania’s judiciary is 74% female – whuda thunkit? It might be worth doing a deeper dive into this conundrum in the future. Percentages are also high in Montenegro and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

In a report published on March 8 last year, 15 nations had female political leaders, eight of whom were the first female leaders of their countries. Three contentious figures were excluded – Park Geun-hye, South Korean President, who was then being impeached; Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan, presumably because the report is worried about the macho thugs in China, and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma/Myanmar who is the effective leader but constitutionally barred from bearing that title. So, adding some backbone to the report, it’s fair to say we have 17 national female leaders. Of these, I might single out Sheikh Hasina, current PM of Bangladesh, who has held that position, not without interruption, for 14 years, and Angela Merkel, now in her 13th year as Chancellor of Germany. Nice to see that in the Baltics, both Lithuania and Estonia have female leaders.

Of course we’re still scratching the surface, but it’s worth taking the long view – comparisons with 100 years ago, 200 years ago, etc. I’m speaking to myself here, I’m impatient for change. It’s unlikely we’ll get rid of all the macho thugs soon, no use railing about it, we just have to get on with it, and celebrate and and make a noise about the many great female scientists and artists and teachers and mentors and sacrificers who struggle and endure and sometimes succeed. I hope to feature more of them in future posts.

a heroine of a different kind – the very topical Park Yeon-mi

Written by stewart henderson

March 10, 2018 at 10:53 pm

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