“[T]he out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.
Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”
I recently discovered Rebecca Solnit’s graceful essay “Men Explain Things to Me: Facts Didn’t Get In Their Way” and thank god. I know I’m not alone in saying that this US election campaign has made me feel acutely feminine and emphatically feminist; by that I mean, I feel threatened as a woman, but more determined to speak out in defense. I caught myself after the last debate thinking for a minute that Trump had performed better, and then collected myself, because there is absolutely no way he is capable of performing better as an intellect and leader. But he does a better performance of the ‘masculinity’ we face too often – the kind wrapped in hubris and callous disregard. The kind that we meet with slow nods, half smiles and fake laughter when we encounter it in the workplace or on a date. The kind that eats into our time and our well being.
Inhabiting my femininity has felt like a work in progress. Law is, despite a growing number of women entering the field each year (my law class was evenly split), still dominated by men. They’re more likely to be partners, judges, and appear as counsel in civil and criminal cases. I feel lucky to have been admitted to the bar while working for a talented, nurturing boss who gave her support and knowledge freely. Actually, all my colleagues were wonderful women and I looked forward to working with them every day. But court was a different story; there are other women representing clients, but you never see them in the coatroom or standing in noisy knots in the hall. I felt my femininity and youth acutely every time, and was easily frustrated by the petty games and ego-stroking necessary to lubricate settlements in cases, that, quite often, were brought against single mothers (or grandmothers). The structural barriers my clients faced in court, in the welfare system, in the healthcare system, in the workplace… it’s better not to get started. The patriarchy didn’t make me quit (like aversions to lawyering and living in New York did), but it made me wary.
When I decided to start my own flower business, I made a point of introducing myself as a floral designer, “sorry, a what?”, a florist. I’m a florist. Maybe I would say it with a slight blush or a tone of defiance, I tried to be nonchalant. Then my friends would interject, “but she also went to law school!” I hope it’s because they found the career change interesting and not because they felt I needed boosting in the eyes of others. I hated, still hate, having to explain the change, dredging up as it does all my insecurities and an endless stream of cliches, cloaked in the privilege that I have been gifted and am grateful for, mindful of. But I also feel defiant of the assumptions made in contrasting law and floristry: it isn’t a profession requiring a degree, I am self-taught; my daily work is not preventing injustices against the disadvantaged, I just brighten peoples’ day; and while anyone who has worked in the flower industry knows this isn’t true, I assume my peers see it as the realm of dreamy women, not assertive, ambitious ones.
I find a lot of joy in being a florist – growing flowers and arranging them for myself and others; working with other creative, gifted women; helping mainly female clients bring their beautiful dreams to life. Weddings, my primary source of work, are a satisfying rush of competence and hands on labour, laced with ribbons and pearl-headed pins. I’ve even gone so far as to call myself an artist on occasion. And it’s let me embrace my emotionality and sensitiveness, my desire to please, instead of constantly fearing a show of weakness.
I can’t say the gardening world has been as welcoming. Again, there are talented women working in gardens and/or designing them, who own nurseries and write newspaper columns, but they’re still in the minority when it comes to more high profile positions. At Chelsea this year, there were complaints about the dearth of female judges (none in the prestigious show garden category), although the RHS was quick to point out there was an increase in the number of female designers presenting gardens. It still seems like a conservative, old boys club. Just this morning I was reading Robin Lane Fox’s ‘Thoughtful Gardening’ and came across the essay “Gendered Landscape.” He reconciles the dominance of men in the history of land ownership with a few paragraphs on women in gardening (some of whom, like Vita Sackville-West, gardened “in a gendered male slipstream”), but ends the essay rather more emphatically.
“Those haystacks and hedges, those pleasant little coverts, those magical clumps of beech trees: all of them go back to men in the landscape, imposing their masculine gender for the sake of artistry, profit and their beloved country sports. The landscape has a masculine orientation. It is so masculine that I even risked putting the fact to a free-thinking feminist over lunch and asking her what she thought. How would she feel driving home now that she realized that the landscape is imprinted with the tyranny of the phallus and the patriarch? ‘Sexy,’ she answered, ‘incredibly sexy: it really grabs me.’ An alternatively gendered landscape is not what the other gender wants.”
Really, Robin. Thanks ever so much for your contribution. I can’t say the young men in gardening seem any better – hard to say whether this is a function of Britain’s general acceptance of sexism and racism on the street, in the pub, in the newspapers and on their tvs, or just, you know, boys being boys while bonding over manual labor. Regardless, during work, vulgar comments and period jokes are fair game. I should just be flattered that I’m pretty strong for a girl. Perhaps I’m over-generalizing, and I’m sure not all experiences will bear this out, yet I can’t imagine the impetuous to change is high unless more of us enter the profession or society stops finding such microaggressions unacceptable. I’m also sure some men will want to explain to me how there are no problems with sexism in gardening and I will smile politely, cough, agree with- wait no. I will say no. You can and you will do better.
The specter of Trump haunts me. I imagine all the people throughout his life who fake laughed and coughed politely as he spewed hate and lies. In his total confidence, I’m sure he rarely knows the difference. All he cares about is the attention – some article today tried to argue that Trump is compelled to pander to the crowd, hence why he has declared he wants to start a witch hunt against Muslims, but he probably doesn’t actually care that much about them one way or another, so maybe his presidency wouldn’t be as bad as we think (sometimes the content mill generates real hogwash). Watching his fragile male ego self-destruct in big ways to even the smallest of perceived slights illuminates all the small detonations we women face every day, or at least it does for me. And it’s frightening and exhausting, but also a reminder not to stand for it.
I have men in my life who are loving and supportive, who have never made me feel less or threatened because of my gender, who choose not to make sexist jokes or accept them from others. But this is not enough. Trump and his ilk show how the slippery slope of sexism trips into misogyny, both verbal and physical. I am optimistic given the recent polling on minority turnout (especially among women) in the advance polls, but he lingers as an ever-present threat.
Solnit closes her essay: “Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have certainly gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime. I’m still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it.” I hope Hillary gets to say it, everything she believes in and hopes for, on Tuesday. I hope we all do.