His and herstory
‘Do you prefer this approach because you’re a woman?’ ‘She writes this way because she’s a woman.’ ‘She can only get away with making these observations because she’s a woman.’
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these phrases and others like them spoken in my history classes here at the U of R. I encountered this attitude most recently when a class discussion focused on a historian who used a rape metaphor to describe the consequences of an event, and the professor attributed her use of this metaphor to her ‘feminine sensitivity.’ The author was not talking about sex or even about women at all, but about colonialism and conquest in Canada.
Sadly, it did not amaze me that of all the historians we discussed in class that day, this particular one was the only woman, and hers was the only analysis for which a gendered explanation was given by the professor. Both he as well as the more vocal, male class members deemed the metaphor shocking and untouchable by any male historian to precede or to follow her because of the taboo and sensitive nature of the topic of rape.
What is so problematic about treating this historian and her metaphor as novel or unique is that it is simply untrue. Rape as a metaphor for colonialism is widely and frequently used, especially in Canada; therefore, this interpretation of the historian’s observation is purely based on gendered assumptions about her feelings and motives as opposed to actual fact. I can only assume this conclusion was wrought from the myth that rape belongs solidly in the female domain, and that this is what lends rape its taboo and untouchable qualities.
The distinctly masculine issues of colonialism and conquest themselves, on the other hand – those penis-waving, “my empire is bigger than your empire” pissing contests that involved the enslavement and subjugation of entire peoples largely on the basis of white Christian supremacy – clearly have nothing taboo or sensitive about them. Situated safely in the male domain, these are mainstream issues that can be discussed freely and openly by historians of any gender, colour, or creed. But like vaginal secretions and menopause, rape is an issue shrouded in feminine mystery, and men would apparently like to keep it that way.
Gender is at work in everything around us all the time, but to look for and teach gendered readings in the work of female or otherwise non-male academics, authors, musicians, artists, or what have you, without applying the same gendered analysis to that of males is perhaps worse than ignoring gender altogether. Such a practice reinforces the fallacy that female/non-male experiences are gendered, while male experiences are not. This perpetuates the widespread discourse that designates female, queer, and trans realities as ‘other’ and situates the supposedly singular male reality firmly in the mainstream.
As a woman with academic aspirations, I find it inexcusable that women’s work and experiences are perceived as inherently influenced by our second X chromosome, while men’s observations are apparently derived from some exquisitely unbiased and rational realm of objectivity. This is the kind of inane, ignorant, patriarchal nonsense I’ve come to expect from many of my uninformed peers, but from the professors responsible for guiding us in our education and teaching us to think critically, open-mindedly, and inclusively, I have to say I expected more.
And no, I’m not just PMS-ing right now.
Photo courtesy of chinaoilpaintinggallery.com