By now, it seems that everyone has heard about the almost-laughably sexist New York Times obituary of aeronautical scientist Yvonne Brill. You know, the one that describes her beef stroganoff, her sacrifices for her husband’s career, and her childcare arrangements before it notes that “in the early 1970s [she] invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.” Douglas Martin, the article’s author, notes that “the University of Manitoba in Canada refused to let her major in engineering because there were no accommodations for women at an outdoor engineering camp, which students were required to attend,” but instead of critiquing the gender bias that prevented Brill from becoming an engineer, uses this circumstance as evidence of her resiliency. Martin, and the newspaper, have been roundly criticized for the article’s sexism, and yet it has been only slightly edited since.
Critiques of Brill’s obituary and mentions of the Finkbeiner Test, designed to avoid gender profiles of female scientists, have started to go hand in hand. To pass the Finkbeiner Test and stand as a profile of a scientist, and not a profile of a woman scientist, the article cannot mention:
- The fact that she’s a woman
- Her husband’s job
- Her child-care arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she’s such a role model for other women
- How she’s the “first woman to…
While the test was designed to assess writing about female scientists, it works just as well for writing about professional women in any field, particularly in those where men outnumber women and women are often held up as trailblazers for their gender. My dissertation work is currently about Canadian poet and academic Jay Macpherson, who died in March 2012. As Cameron Anstee notes, her death was almost entirely ignored by the Canadian literary community, except by people who knew her. When a long and praise-filled obituary appeared in The Globe and Mail, albeit nearly six months after Macpherson’s death, I was initially pleased that a major publication had even remembered her. Never mind that it seemingly should have been a given, considering that she was for many years the youngest Governor General’s Award winner for poetry and one of the few Canadian recipients of the prestigious Poetry [Chicago] Levinson Prize. (I later learned that Margaret Atwood, one of Macpherson’s closest and longest friends, convinced the newspaper to run the obituary). But my pleasure largely disappeared when I decided to apply the Finkbeiner Test.
The title of Sandra Martin’s piece was the first red flag: “The nurturing nature of Jay Macpherson.” No mention of her brilliant poetic mind, her many awards, or Martin’s own newspaper’s statement, back in 1957, that Macpherson was Canada’s “finest young poet.” Indeed, no mention of the fact that Macpherson was a poet at all. Despite Macpherson’s choice to remain unmarried and childless, Martin still manages to construct an image of her as maternal which trumps her professional identity, suggesting that her poetic output was small because “she was a ministering angel to waifs and strays, often to the detriment of her own work and health.” Point 4. on the Finkbeiner Test: fail. Points 1 and 7 are spectacular fails in the first paragraph: “After winning the Governor-General’s Literary award for The Boatman in 1957, Jay Macpherson was asked to give a talk about Canadian poetry at Hart House at the University of Toronto. The invitation, which marked the first time the all-male Hart House student union had invited a woman to address its members, provoked such a fuss that women were barred from attending Macpherson’s talk.” And while Macpherson didn’t have a husband to mention, Martin can’t help but credit Macpherson’s success as “a collegial and hard-working member of the Canadian poetic community” to her prominent male mentors: “It didn’t hurt that as a very young poet, she had already attracted the attention of three key mentors and literary scholars: George Johnston, Northrop Frye and Robert Graves.” Let’s consider that a fail on Point 2. Even Macpherson’s work as the founder and sole editor of Emblem Books, which published collections by major Canadian poets including Dorothy Livesay and Al Purdy that Anstee argues are “surely among the most beautiful produced in Canada in the 20th century,” is construed as an act of charity rather than of literary labour: “Macpherson put her meagre financial resources into publishing other poets.” I could go on, but I won’t. [Note 1]
In contrast, The Globe and Mail just published the obituary of Milton Wilson, who was one of Macpherson’s first publishers and reviewers, as well as one of her doctoral supervisors. Unlike the title of Macpherson’s obituary, Wilson’s foregrounds his professional accomplishment: “Romantic poetry expert Milton Wilson ‘a truly civilized man.'” The early paragraphs focus not on his gender, as they do in Macpherson’s, but on his accomplishments; his family life doesn’t come in until well toward the end, and his wife is described only as “attractive.” But what bothers me most is that one of the first things he is praised for is his non-sexist hiring practices: “He hired women at a time when that was a rarity. Jill Levenson, who recently retired as an English prof at Trinity, remembers her job interview in 1967 at which Prof. Wilson asked only gender-blind questions about her professional qualifications and nothing about her personal life.” I find this paragraph problematic for a few reasons. Firstly, I object to the way the author, Judy Stoffman, uses this instance of non-sexism to whitewash the blatant gender-bias he displays elsewhere; this is a snippet of his review of Macpherson’s The Boatman, which was considered by many the signal collection of the 1950s in Canada: “Her palace of art is distinctly feminine, … her apocalyptic imagery, pervasive as it is, remains gratuitous and decorative, [and] her Atlantis is a pink cloud, not a prophecy.” Secondly, I can’t imagine that a female professor would ever be praised for asking nothing about a candidate’s personal life. Thirdly, there’s the fact that a lack of sexism should be a baseline expectation of decent human behaviour, and therefore not worthy of praise, whether it’s 1967 or 2007. [Note 2] As Kelly Williams Brown argues on her cult blog Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 486 Easy(ish) Steps:
Step 277: Do not expect kudos for being decent
Let’s say you are a non-racist, thoughtful-to-LGBTQA folks, non-sexist, bill-paying-on-time, recycling-sorting, never-kicks-puppies kind of person: To you I say, and mean it, congratulations. That is awesome. Take a second and feel nice about yourself. All done? Good. Because those are not things that make you worthy of praise. That shit is standard. Do not expect others to pat you on the back for a lack of assholishness. Pat yourself, and others, on the back when it is merited.
If there’s to be a test for profiles about men like the Finkbeiner Test, it needs to contain the rule that it must not include “How he didn’t discriminate against people with less power and social currency than himself.” As Brown says, “That shit is standard.”
I’m angry a lot about the state of CanLit, and the state of writing in general. There’s lots to get mad about: Brill’s obituary, Deborah Copaken Kogan’s stunning account of the sexism she’s faced as an author and war-photographer, the disparity between what we say when we talk about dead Canadian writers if they’re male or if they’re female. But there’s some to get excited about too: despite the fact that I can predict with near 100 per cent certainty that CWILA‘s national survey of book reviews–now underway, if you want to volunteer–will again reveal that women are seriously underrepresented as both reviewers and the reviewed, at least someone’s doing the counting. Hopefully the numbers will look better than last year:
And at least Brill’s obituary now lists “rocket scientist” before “beef stroganoff.”
What gets you mad about issues of gender in CanLit, or in the arts more generally? What gives you hope?
Note 1: Sandra Martin’s piece is otherwise well-written, accurate, and positive; she’s also been generous with her time and knowledge in helping me with my own work, for which I’m grateful. I also don’t mean to suggest that her gender-bias is intentional; these sorts of gender profiles are far from rare in the genre, and we need things like the Finkbeiner test to alert us to our own blind spots as readers and writers.
Note 2: It pains me to note that when I raised my issues with a male colleague, I received a brisk dismissal; he did, however, later concede that he understood my point. I read his gaslighting, which I’m sure was unintentional, as a symptom of the normalcy of casual gender-bias.