In the Sixties, women made bitter jokes about making coffee for the revolution, about cleaning the big tables we should have been speaking at. About needing men like fish need bicycles, as the Australian feminist Irina Dunn said.
Close to 50 years later, long past first-wave and second-wave feminism, into the rich and diverse territory of multiple perspectives on gender identities and contested assumptions about power and agency, we are still talking about access and equity in the public sphere. The numbers and charts on this web site tell a compelling story about the Canadian literary climate for women. Underneath those numbers, however, are social patterns and practices whose influences weave a complicated net.
Regardless of the door we open — sociolinguistics, rhetoric, media, communications — we know that certain kinds of discourse exert more influence and take up more space. We know this inequity breaks down along gender and race lines (as well as class, age, and other social distinctions). Almost without exception, the dominant and more influential forms and practices in North America are Western First World and patriarchal. In the 1970s, Robin Lakoff and Dale Spender described women’s language as marked, a linguistic term referring to patterns that are not the default setting. Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigiray and Hélene Cixous, among others, have described the many ways phallogocentrism privileges masculinist meaning. Post and beyond-post writers acknowledge the ongoing problem of the Western male gaze – in most everything. Non-dominant users of language are the muted group, according to Cheris Kramerae, and, even when the group has access, social and political forces privilege and protect the dominant. The conceptual practices of power that Dorothy Smith describes – those signs, symbols, and codes we read and write – continue to play themselves out in board meetings, the local faith centre, the nightly news, in women’s shelters, places we shop, celebrate, grieve and work. And, as we see on this site, they play themselves out in print. Shifts in the direction of equity and equality are steady but slow: social forces are so powerful that even fresh territory, like the internet, is easily colonized.
What we see in the CWILA images tells a story about reviewing in Canadian publications. The story’s roots are deep. To wit: research in language education shows that an early focus on expressive and poetic modes gives way to a focus on argument in senior grades (considered by most educators to be the ‘real’ discourse); literary study across the curriculum (and the arts in general) is marked female, and thus less powerful than science and sports. When teachers aim for by-the-numbers turn-taking by gender, they field boys’ complaints that girls get more turns (frequency of women’s speech is measured against silence, not other speakers’ talk); and in female-dominated classrooms, girls and women will defer to boys and men in discussion. Boys are schooled into floor-taking, and when they hold the floor, they tend to keep it. Males tend to initiate in the public sphere by argument, women by agreement. Women writers in universities are more likely to find agonistic, point-driven discourse hostile; female students prefer to study new concepts by starting with expressive rather than propositional language (often labeled subjective versus objective).
Women (of all races, gender/queer identities and cultures) learn to survive by ventriloquism, learning to talk and write in discourses not entirely their own. M. Nourbese Philip said: “the source of the foreignness is the awareness that this is not my tongue.” Further, as Kramerae, Tannen, Smith, and others show, having ‘equal time’ is never truly equal: we may ask for (or be given) the microphone, but the challenge is multiplied when someone else owns the stadium, does the advertising, and controls the turnstiles. We learn that lack of agency begets lack of agency, a platform begets more exposure and more platforms. In public spaces such as meetings, online forums, conferences, as well as in print, women of all genders, ages, classes, and racial identities adjust, work around, resist, or learn to accept being talked over, talked through, ignored, patronized, sexualized, trivialized, or attacked.
Change is difficult: my two sons, my male partner, and I are continually alert to inequities we perpetuate in our behaviour. And change is slow: generations too young to have heard of activist Rosemary Brown or mayor Charlotte Whitton (“women must work twice as hard; fortunately this is not difficult”) are charged with the task of taking on the work into the next decade or more.
Like fish, we can’t always see the water we swim in. Western colonialist and patriarchal assumptions can hold sway in language despite our efforts: it’s a truism in contemporary sociology that objectivity is just another term for dominant subjectivities. (And it’s a truism that when it’s not your power that’s challenged, it’s not your problem: witness the hysterics around affirmative action.) Feminist sociologists and sociolinguists look not only at issues of equitable air time and privileging of certain discourses, but they also note differences in tone, approach, and motivation in speech and writing.
Tannen notes that the public arena, dominated by males, favours agonistic discourse (think House of Commons in session, think contemporary news media) in which thrust and parry, personal attack, and trumping another’s argument are the currency. Theorists and researchers have long described women’s speech and writing as distinctive by its turn-taking, self-disclosure, tentativeness, marked concern for audience, use of question tags, avoidance of self-aggrandizement or self-promotion, among other features. And, although earlier, essentialist characterizations of male and female language patterns over-simplify, it is impossible to ignore the wealth of research that reveals systemic gendered differences in how we talk with one another, how we write, and how we listen and read one another. Differences are one thing: inequities are another. What we know about gender and writing is deeply personal, and yet it is not. Each of us knows a man who is a better feminist than the woman next to him; each of us knows a woman who thinks feminism is dead.
The world of reviewing is a microcosm of the larger story of women and language. Women write and publish as frequently as men in Canada, and yet women’s books are less frequently reviewed, and women reviewers are less frequently published. A casual glance at contemporary reviews shows differences in tone and approach by gender. The pie charts and counts you see on this website tell us that when social and political forces gain momentum, they keep it. To paraphrase the homily: all it takes to perpetuate inequity is to do nothing. Some of us believe that the onus is on women and gender/queer communities to interrupt the conversation, take the editorial reins, insert themselves into the discourse (“you could have asked”); some of us believe that the gatekeepers need to take a close look at their gates, how they’ve built them, and rebuild them (“you could have noticed”). Many of us fall somewhere between those stances. What is clear is that doing nothing is no longer an option.
What we don’t see in these charts and figures, despite the hundreds of hours of research, are the particulars: how the numbers break down in terms of cultural, class, age, or gender/queer identities; and how writers and reviewers in various regions of Canada are represented. Nor can we tell what a sociogram of reviewers’ and editors’ writing networks might tell us about access, influence, and cultural capital. The interviews and questionnaires on this site add texture and complexity to this conversation. More qualitative data will open our conversation further, and, we hope, foster the change we want to see. What we read here is a hard-won but heartening beginning in the effort to bring diverse groups of women to the table– and the page – so that Canadian letters can be enriched by all voices in equal measure.
Lorri Neilsen Glenn thanks several CWILA members (including founder Gillian Jerome and poet/philosopher Jan Zwicky), writing colleagues, and the current Canada Research Chair in gender at Mount Saint Vincent University, Marnina Gonick, for comments that clarified this essay.