Brilliant Women Who Explain Things To Me

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Rebecca Mead describes the challenges Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard has faced as a prominent female academic:

At Cambridge [in 1972], the inequities of gender began to dawn on Beard. “Most of the people who taught us in the faculty were blokes,” she says. “There were only twelve per cent women among the students, and you thought, Actually, there is an issue here. You go into a dining hall of a men’s college, and everybody’s portrait was a bloke. Well, perhaps some female founder back in 1512, some lady who gave the cash—and everyone else was a bloke. For the first time I saw that, somehow, I was there as sort of a favor.” She attended women’s groups and joined campaigns to open the university further to women. The women of Cambridge were undertaking more personal voyages of discovery, too: in a drawer somewhere in Beard’s house is a plastic speculum that she acquired at one consciousness-raising gathering.

Beard left Cambridge in 1979, for King’s College London. She completed her Ph.D. in 1982; two years later, she returned to Newnham as a fellow. At the time, she says, she was one of only three women on the classics faculty, out of a total of twenty-six; before long, both of her female colleagues left. (Now there are roughly four men to each woman.)

That was then. Today, explains Mead, Beard is active on social media, and holds her own in an ongoing battle with the ubiquitous misogynistic troll contingent. Mead addresses the particularity of how Beard, whom “the Queen recently appointed … to the Order of the British Empire,” battles lesser names (or the altogether anonymous):

There is, [Beard] acknowledges, an irony in the imbalance of power: as a prominent scholar, she does have a voice, however unpleasant the threats to silence her may be. Most of her Twitter detractors are grumbling to only a handful of followers, at least until she amplifies their audience.

Mead’s article brought to mind a pattern I’ve noticed within feminism, which I’ve called the Second After Sartre problem, namely that of women who aren’t merely privileged but are major leaders of their age, who call out the obstacles that prevent them from achieving what their male equivalents can, or from doing so as easily. It’s in reference to… I’ll let LisaAppignanesi explain the story I’m referencing:

De Beauvoir and Sartre met in 1929 when they were both studying for the aggregation in philosophy, the elite French graduate degree. De Beauvoir came second to Sartre’s first, though the examiners agreed she was strictly the better philosopher and at the age of 21 the youngest person ever to have sat the exam. But Sartre, the future author of Being and Nothingness, was bold, ingenious, exuberant in his youthful excess, the satirical rebel who shouted, “Thus pissed Zarathustra” as he hurled water bombs out of classroom windows.

Being second after Sartre, when you should have been first, is indeed an injustice. Injustices that occur at the top – ones well beyond the First World Problem-ness of having-it-all feminism – are instructive (if even the most elite, confident women face sexism, perhaps sexism is actually a thing!), and of course it matters if the tippy-top of whichever hierarchy is open to all who qualify. But the trouble is that we end up hearing a wildly disproportionate amount about such injustices, because, well, who gives lectures at the British Museum? It can start to feel as if feminism is primarily about recognizing the achievements of the most accomplished women. That’s part of what feminism should be, but perhaps not quite so big a part.

See also (my grievances with) “mansplaining.” Rebecca Solnit’s article, “Men who explain things,” which more or less launched the concept, was about a man trying to explain to Solnit a topic she had just written a book about. That is… not the usual situation. More often, in cases where a man conflates maleness with superior expertise, the man and the woman know approximately as much (or as little) about the topic. Neither is likely to be a certified expert. What if a woman wishes to speak and she isn’t the world’s greatest genius? Men who fail to meet that standard have been known to say their piece.

This is my roundabout way of saying why I’m so curious about Roxane Gay’s writing. From Lucy McKeon’s review of Gay’s two new books:

Amidst Anne-Marie Slaughter’s talk of “having it all” and Sheryl Sandberg’s talk of “leaning in,” Gay’s Bad Feminist, a collection of essays of cultural criticism, offers a complex and multifarious feminism to answer the movement’s ongoing PR issues, its flaws and its failures. Gay’s is a feminism for the ignorant and misinformed as much as for the historically excluded and ignored. Analyzing a wide range of material—from 12 Years a Slave to the Sweet Valley High series, from the reality TV trope “I’m not here to make friends” to the gendered politics of likeability in fiction, from professional sports to Tyler Perry, from the fallout of mass tragedy to legislative control of women’s reproductive rights—Bad Feminist surveys culture and politics from the perspective of one of the most astute critics writing today.

Yes, the time has come for “a feminism for the ignorant and misinformed as much as for the historically excluded and ignored.” It couldn’t have come soon enough.