Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Women's Work

Tuesday was International Women's Day, and the news was filled with articles and stats on how far we have come (gender parity in Canada's federal cabinet) and how far we still have to go (spousal assault stats, gender wage gap). Having been born in the immediate post War years and come of age in the social revolution of the 60s, I have marched some distance along the long road towards equality. In those nearly seventy years, it's easy to forget–and indeed, some never knew– how far we have come. My now 97 year-old mother has been my inspiration and role model for a strong, independent woman. She was born to relative privilege and attended private school in Westmount followed by finishing school in Paris, in the days when young ladies went to finishing school to get ready for their debut into "society". But while her friends practiced their courtesies and schemed over their dance cards, she chose instead to take the McGill university entrance exams. While those fine young ladies paraded their pedigrees and assets in the hopes of securing a hefty diamond ring by the end of the season, my mother was studying philosophy and science and dreaming of her place in the world.

Yet she was trapped by her era, her dreams stifled by her time and by the men who held the power over her life. She came from a long line of physicians and surgeons who had helped build the McGill medical school and the affiliated Montreal teaching hospital into a force to be respected internationally. Like her grandfather, father, and older brother before her, she wanted to be a doctor, but was told it was no job for a woman, who had neither the health nor the stamina for it. At 97, she sure has proved them wrong! So she did graduate work in biology and bacteriology instead, and when the reality of family responsibilities encroached, she became a high school biology teacher. But what a teacher! Innovative and creative throughout her teaching years, she wrote text books, developed a new ecology curriculum decades before its time, acted as president of her teaching union, and inspired countless students. After she retired, she went on to settle refugees and participate in social action and social justice causes, earning at the age of eighty a Caring Canadian Award from the Governor General of Canada. At 87, she wrote a book.

As her daughter, I had it slightly easier. But when I wanted to go to graduate school, the universities still required a letter from my father proving he could support me. When I wanted to buy a car, the bank required my husband to co-sign the loan, even though I was a professional on an equal footing with him. When I enrolled in my doctoral psychology program, the class consisted of nine men and me. Many of those men had wives who cooked their meals and did their laundry, allowing them to stay all hours at the lab. I had a great but lonely husband who just looked sad when the meals were late and the laundry forgotten. When I first started working as a school psychologist, women dominated the classrooms in elementary schools and made up about half of high school teachers, but there was only one woman principal in the whole school board. The higher you got in the school board, the more men dominated.

I'm happy to say times have changed. Women are everywhere in psychology and teaching and school board administration. They are dominant in many fields of university study, including law and medicine. But there is still this niggling reality that the fields dominated by women are the "soft", "nurturing" fields, and that the pay in these fields is not equal to the power-broker fields of science, tech, finance, and business, where it's still a man's world. I vividly recall a comparative entry-level income survey done between psychologists (who require a PhD and roughly 25 years of study) and regular engineers (a B Eng and less than 20 years). The engineers started at about $20K more than psychologists. At the time, I thought it's a good thing I love my work!

What does this have to do with this blog, which is after all a blog about writing? Because in some ways, the underlying themes hold true. Since I started my second career as a writer, I have banged my head against the same glass ceiling, encountered the same biases against women's stories the same undervaluing of women's choices, and the same preconceptions about the worth of women's work. An unpublished author, in an effort to find out why agents and publishers were rejecting her submissions, changed her name (and nothing else) to a male pseudonym and received eight times as many expressions of interest. Male authors receive more reviews, more festival invitations, more offers from the big publishers. And when it comes to prestigious awards, men win hands down.

Since recent surveys of publishing and literary agents reveal an overwhelming majority are white women, our sisters seem to be perpetuating the same message; men's stories matter more. And here's a recent anecdote to illustrate this. At the conference I just attended,  our Canadian contingent of crime writers organized a reception to highlight Canadian Crime. Pictures of all of us were posted to Facebook, prompting several commenters to ask "Are there no male Canadian crime writers?" There was one, but he was lost in the sea of hard-working women toiling on behalf of all of us. It's just what we do. What we have to do.

So it seems it is not yet time to lay down the sword and declare the battle won. But every time I grumble grumble grumble, I just have to remember my mother– where she came from and how far she travelled, against far greater odds than me. And if if all else fails, there's always the plucky thought "It's a good thing I love my work!"


Unknown said...

What a wonderful piece today Barbara! I'd love to meet your mother...she's awesome as the 'younguns' today would say! I had a wonderful periodontist and when I had an appointment we always talked books as I usually had one with me while waiting. I tried over and over to get him to read your books as we both were mystery readers. But he actually would state that he didn't read female writers! When pushed to state why, he didn't really have an answer that made any sense. I just left him with "How do you know, if you haven't yet read any?"

Eva Gates said...

Excellent article, Barbara. I might point out that at the Left Coast crime conference you mention all the authors paid their own way and paid to attend. If you ever see a Festival with a predominance of male Canadain crime writers, you can be sure most of them have been paid to show up. This is just my observation, but I've observed it a heck of a lot of times.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Unknown, this is a refrain I hear over and over. And it goes some way to explaining the bias in favour of male writers. Women read across the spectrum, whereas men tend to read only men. Exceptions on both sides, of course.

Aline Templeton said...

A little shamefaced, I have to admit that I look for female writers rather than male. I don't mean I never read male writers, it's just that I have a much higher standard for them - good reviews or something before I pick them up. Not sure where that leaves me - same place as the male readers who don't usually read women?

Huge respect for your mother, though, Barbara. I was the generation to got to stand on their shouldrs.