I got lost in those generic terms
that passed over my gender
I got lost when I spoke through their mouth
I got lost when their word was my voice,
I got lost when in some failure
they condemned me to silence and negation.
They all muted my voice,
of sweet words that they called childish,
of furious voices they called hysterical,
and they failed to hear my reasons,
and now I didn’t care about naming myself
or anything that was named by me.
Mariana Yonüsg Blanco
This fragment of a poem came to me in my reading of Teresa Moure, who I promised to introduced to you yesterday when I wrote about the poet Yolanda Castaño. I recommend you to read that poem if you haven’t already.
I was introduced to Teresa Moure by Marisa who works in one of the hotels I use on the Camino de Santiago. I have known Marisa for years and, as she is a reader, she usually has some good recommendations for me. She has seen Yolanda Castaño, for example, and had some pithy comments about her style. She suggested I read Teresa Moure because I had been talking to her about a particular problem I was having in my work.
I am a guide taking small groups on the Camino, the ancient pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela. At the end of the season the owner of the business asked me to evaluate the people who work for him. The work involves sorting out the logistics of hotels, meals and transport as well as the softer skills of managing diverse groups, ensuring that there is good conversation at the dinner table and listening to the issues of the clients.
There are nine guides: six men and three women. I was faced with the uncomfortable realisation that the ones who were most difficult were the women. It bothered me. “Can it be,” I asked myself “that these observations I am making hide a deeper problem? Is it possible that the problem is not them, but me?” I had asked around and people I knew thought it was just the way the dice rolled, that it was coincidental and that I should not bother too much about it. “Either they do the work or they don’t,” they said. “You can’t start thinking it is you causing the problem.”
In fact, this is not what I thought. I was thinking something a little more complicated. I was thinking that there is something in the world these women live in that makes them misjudge the tone in communications, fall back on their dignity when their work is criticised and assume a bossy attitude at the first opportunity. It seemed to me that there was a problem in communication here and that these problems are the equal responsibility of all partners in the dialogue. So it wasn’t me or them, it was me and them.
I started to investigate what I might be doing wrong and came across a wealth of valuable advice about “micro-aggressions”. These are presuppositions that you are hardly aware of but that worm their way into your manner of speaking and presenting yourself. There are some great lists of micro-aggressions on the internet designed to help men communicate better with women. I am currently working on myself with regard to some of these ideas. More earth-shaking than the work I am doing on myself, however, is my growing awareness of the world in which women live. I watched a shocking video of a woman walking down the street in New York who receives over one hundred sexist comments in one day. There is nothing provocative about her dress or her attitude. If the video is shocking the responses in the commentaries are even more so.
“It seems to me that I don’t understand the world that women live in,” I said to Marisa.
“You should read Teresa Moure,” she said. “I love her books. In fact, I have given out my copy of A Palabra das Fillas de Eva to so many people now that I don’t even know where it is.”
Teresa Moure is a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Santiago. The Word of the Daughters of Eve (Galaxia: Santiago de Compostela, 2005) is “an essay about women and language. The author sets out to defy gender by going past the formulas of academic discourse to create a polyfacetic tale in which, while she puts across her ideas, she inserts stories into the text. Renew language to create a new world. Liberate the word, to liberate, not only women, but all human beings.” (From the back cover.)
I loved the little stories in the book. It starts with the story of what happens to a woman in a hospital giving birth: sharp, accurate, perceptive and funny.
It seems particularly appropriate to be reading Moure with Yolanda Castaño fresh in my mind. Depth of Field is full of questions and doubts. It is powerfully intelligent whilst being distinctly feminine. She is not a woman who has neutered her female voice, but she is conscious of her own manoeuvres in the game of communication: toying with playing the victim, worrying about being pretty, making lists of questions.
Here is a passage from the middle essay of Teresa Moure’s book, Feminine Language Set Against Male Language. I think it helps us to understand Castaño:
“On the one hand, women look at questions as a means to keep the conversation going and to ensure the flow of sympathy with their interlocutor, whilst men look on them only as a request for information. Aside from questions, women use expressions that serve as a bridge between what their interlocutor is saying and what they have to say themselves, avoiding the position where arguments would be seen as confrontational and reinforcing the idea that they are listening. Finally, the most interesting point, in my opinion… , is that women enjoy discussing their problems, sharing experiences, feelings and secrets and achieving a certain emotional security. For this reason the subculture of women has a marked literary value.”
These points are taken from a study by Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker,
Moure enlivens the driness of the academic ideas with some well-chosen anecdotes from her own life. She is listening to a phone-in programme on the radio and starts to notice the differences in the way the men- who are mostly truck drivers- and the women- who are mostly housewives- express themselves. I won’t take the words out of her mouth. Here is what she says:
“For the most part the women, who are taking part of their own free will, start what they say with such phrases as, “Sorry, I’m a bit nervous…”, “You know, since I’ve never spoken on the radio, I’m a little… you understand.” This kind of humble justification never, or very rarely, comes in male contributions. Often these men who offer their opinions show a certain crudity; their opinions can be superficial, conventional or constructed by the ideology of power, but the men who formulate them, are sure of these opinions and the form they take as they express them. Although a whole series of phonetic, lexical and grammatical signs could demonstrate that the women are more “educated” (according to the measurements of culture that come from academic artefacts), the women insist on raising their lack of familiarity with the medium, as in the examples above and, especially, draw attention to their supposed linguistic failings (“Well… I don’t understand that issue… this is what we people on the street think”, “You will forgive me if I can’t find exactly the right word”, “People who know more about it will explain it better than me”). The peculiar intensity of the insecurity and anxiety of women regarding linguistic matters (as well as aesthetic matters, of course) can be explained in this sociological context. Bourdieu argues that women, condemned by the gender divide in work to wait for social progress to raise their symbolic capacities of production and consumption, are particularly aware of the acquisition of legitimate competencies. I very much fear that for this reason women are more sensitive than men to the lustre conferred by university titles (to be a graduate, doctor or architect), the opinion the adminstrators of social selection can have of them (to be a very interested, very hard-working student, although this good opinion of teachers does not translate directly into material benefits or better qualifications) or the opinions of others in general (“the child cannot go around dirty… If he does, what will they say about me? That I am not a good mother”).”
This passage seems to me to reflect upon Yolanda Castaño’s “project for identity”. I detect the same anxieties about the opinion of others. Everything about Castaño’s poem suggests that it is a conversation even though the convention of written verse can only allow us to guess at the responses of her imagined interlocutor.
Getting back to my own case, I read Moure and came to some realisations. In my women colleagues I can see the investment in “legitimate competencies”, for example. It is one of the things that does not convince me when it comes to doing the work at hand. What do I care if she has a degree, if she is not doing the work? On reflection I can see this as a male response. My focus on the work to be done- and not on all the subsidiary and, to me, irrelevant social markers- defines me as much as it defines them. It is more important to a woman to have a degree, and for that degree to be valued, than it is for a man, perhaps.
I struggle with some of the implications of Moure’s writing. There is certainly an element of cultural difference. I don’t recognise myself in her description of the man who is so taciturn in expessing his feelings that his partner knows next to nothing about him:
“And there she was, so many years later, attempting to rethink her personal history in the light of the brilliant theory of men’s lack of education in feelings… She knew little about him. Although more than enough to be certain that he loved her. In reality he knew much more about her. And what did she know about him? Just the rough texture of his hands and the profound magnetism of his smile. She knew that he loved her but hid the slightest indication with which he could pay attention to her feelings so as not to startle him. Every man is a child for a woman. And she never wanted to put words into his mouth.” (p.50-51)
“Every man is a child for a woman.” This certainly rings true of my experience in Spain. The attention to the details of domestic arrangements, the desire to control the family, the heavy investment in the emotional well-being of all the members of the family, the critical eye towards minor elements of dress and fashion, the bad habit of mindreading: these are all parts of the Spanish female psyche. Is it petty to say you don’t buy into it? I certainly don’t. I don’t because I don’t want a partner who thinks she is my mother. I don’t especially want to work with my mother either!
I have a friend who lives in Madrid. He is well-educated, urbane and modern. He looks after the children whilst his wife is at work because his job allows him that flexibility and is proud of his role as a parent. A modern man. Yet he said to me, “It is always going to be more difficult working with women than with men. Es lo que hay. That’s all there is to it.” His pet theory is that women mutate when they have children. He says that they are not aware of it themselves, but as a man you are painfully aware of the transformation: they are no longer women; they are mothers. I was ready to dismiss this idea. I don’t want it to be true. Yet, women are capable of saying things such as, “Nosotras como madres somos así… we mothers are just like that.” This comes from one of those female colleagues.
What is the best response to this? I’ve got to fifty thinking that a woman would not want to be defined as a mother and certainly not by a man. I guess this comes from my education at the hands of feminist friends in the eighties who were struggling against inequality and refused to be defined by their ability to bear children. This is not to deny the mother/child bond in all its beauty and mysterious significance, but… well… I really do not know what to think.
In the context of work I am still struggling with what Yolanda Castaño calls the “project of identity”. You see, it seems to me that there are many good things that my women colleagues offer to the work. The work itself seems to cry out for female qualities of empathy, attention to detail and, even, mindreading. And I do not want them to feel that they get lost because their words are not sufficient: I don’t want to speak through their mouth or make my word their voice.
It will take patience at the least. What do you think? What are the problems and what are the solutions? I’d love to hear some good ideas.
I have deleted the links: this post disappeared and I think it might be to do with the linking process.