It was an ordinary Monday in early March, insofar as a day in New York can be ordinary. I was leaving the school where I teach. As I walked down the stairs this time, surrounded by the hubbub of preteen chatter, I noticed a poster on the wall announcing the celebration of Women’s History Month. Thirty-one days set aside to pay tribute to the wonderfully rich, diverse accomplishments of over half the world’s population! The whole idea of this has often struck me as the same kind of well-intentioned offensiveness offered to us by Black History Month in February. While I commend both these efforts at affirmative action, they seem to be a bit too little, if not too late. The repercussions of these months are certainly more poisonous than the good they do. Women’s History Month reinforces the idea that default history belongs to cis white men. It forces frameworks that try to celebrate diverse accomplishments by lumping everyone together into a single group, and continues to enforce a gender binary that further narrows our scope as a society. As a woman who is an artist and a teacher, I left the building both annoyed and disappointed.
It occurred to me that, although celebrating all of the world’s women in thirty-one days is absurd, I could take this opportunity to appreciate at least a few during that time.
Brushing my cynicism away, I continued towards the L train. A flood of thoughts followed me down the sidewalk and into the station, where I stood on the platform waiting. I pulled out the book I was reading as an escape from my frenzied rush-hour commute in Manhattan. The Summer Before the Dark, by Doris Lessing. Lessing has been one of my favorite authors ever since I stumbled upon another of her beautifully crafted novels in a used bookstore several years ago. But, in that moment, the act of looking at this book sparked an idea. It occurred to me that, although celebrating all of the world’s women in thirty-one days is absurd, I could take this opportunity to appreciate at least a few during that time. By posting about it on social media, maybe others would be inspired to read these books as well. In a worst-case scenario, my friends and I would have read some good books. By the time I arrived in Brooklyn, I decided that each week in March I would read a new book by an author who is a woman.
On that day I couldn’t have known what literary prowess I was about to venture into, how these words would score my spirit and stop my breath. I also had no idea how many questions this would raise for me – as a woman, artist, writer, and reader. I was about to spend the rest of my March days (and nights) wondering about, worrying about, loving, laughing, and crying with the protagonists of these stories.
All of my reading material was chosen at random – either by recommendation or because they happened to be lying around. The only criteria I set for the project were that the books had to have been written by a woman, had to be new (to me), and that they had to be novels. In this order, I read:
- The Summer Before the Dark, by Doris Lessing (UK, 1973)
- Borderlife, by Dorit Rabinyan (Israel, 2014)
- OUT, by Natsuo Kirino (Japan, 1997)
- Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (USA, 1937)
- Orlando: a Biography, by Virginia Woolf (UK, 1928).
The novels themselves were very different, which was not surprising as they were all from different eras and cultures. What surprised me was how many similarities I found. Several themes were repeating themselves, and by the middle of the third book it was more than uncanny – I was clearly observing a pattern worth looking at more closely.
All of the protagonists of the books on my random list were women, except for the gender-fluid lead in Woolf’s Orlando. In our world of constant white-male-narrative inundation across various media, it struck me as noteworthy that this chance selection had so many leading women. The women in these stories felt different than any I’d ever read – more tangible, relatable, well-developed, sensitive, and all around real. Most perplexing, the struggles they faced were nearly identical. They each strove to realize their full potential within the constraints set for them by patriarchal figures of power in their respective societies. All of them. If these characters could get a beer together, they’d get along just fine.
I became captivated by two questions: Is there truly such a thing as “women’s art”? And, if so, do all women, or other gender groups, share a natural bond? My head said no to this, but my heart wasn’t as sure. I thought I knew my own feelings, but I needed to hear other perspectives and opinions. To find these, I reached out to my social media networks, asking for the thoughts of people across the gender spectrum. I didn’t expect anything dramatic – maybe a handful of people would comment or share an experience.
Instead, I found myself immersed in scores of conversations about gender in art. My friends (and their friends) had lots of insights to share. I was, and am, extremely moved by the personal stories and by the honest, thoughtful answers to my questions. I received so many in-depth responses that it took a while to reply and to sort them in a way that made some sense. I can’t say I have definitive truths – gender is a deeply personal and therefore indefinite affair. I only have some thoughts about the responses and what they may signify.
Of the thirty responses I received, seventeen were from women, ten were from men, and three were from non-binary conforming individuals. Ages ranged from twenty-four to sixty, but most were thirty-three or under.
Two things stood out to me when I looked at the stories I’d compiled. The first was more obvious and had to do with how gender played a part in the artist’s work. Of the women, fourteen of the seventeen told me that their gender had an influence on their creative endeavors. All of the non-binary conforming individuals felt the same way. Among the men this was not nearly as common – only one of the ten felt that being a man had a definite impact on his work. One man said maybe, and all the rest responded with a resounding no. Predictably, all of the women and non-binary responders had been asked this question in the past and had given it thought, whereas only four of the men had ever been asked to think about it.
Among my peers, those who are a gender that’s perceived as a minority are necessarily more aware and are making active decisions about whether or not this aspect of their identities should impact their creative selves. Walking around as a minority gender is a daily hassle in the form of unwarranted comments and unpleasant behavior from strangers. Dealing with it becomes second nature – a constant reminder that one is a gendered being. This reality resonated very strongly with my own experience.
My second observation wasn’t as definitive or expected. When I asked my friends whether they naturally bonded with people who share their gender, only one of the women said no. Only three of the men said yes. Neither non-binary conforming responder related to this question. I had previously held the opinion that these natural connections were a fallacy, invented to flatten the dimensions of humans into a single stereotype. Why, then, were the responses pointing in a different direction?
During one late night conversation about gender in art a friend told me about a theory called convergent evolution. When I looked it up, the writings I found gave me an interesting perspective on the answers I had collected. The New World Encyclopedia defines convergent evolution as:
“…the independent development of similar structures, forms, physiology, or behavior in organisms that are not closely related; that is, the evolution of a similar trait in diverse organisms that is attributed to a reason(s) other than sharing the trait in a common ancestor.”
In other words, even if we’re distinctly different in all ways, if similar traits develop they could still endure given similar environmental conditions. Apparently, this happens all the time in paleontology. According to the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP), a good example of two species that evolved in this way involves the Smilodon (saber-toothed tiger) and the Hoplophoneus (saber-toothed cat). They lived 20 million years apart yet both developed those highly conspicuous teeth we associate with them. The UCMP site states that:
“The saber-tooth morphology is an excellent example of convergent evolution as it appeared in several evolutionary lineages independently. We present two saber-tooths, both classified in the order Carnivora, from different geological periods.”
Evolutionary theory is based on the survival of the fittest. This means that animals that happen to develop traits which best equip them in a given environment will persist, while other varieties of the same species will naturally disappear over time.
Applied here, it may follow that a perceived universal sisterhood results from women the world over acquiring similar traits to best equip them in belligerent environments. Those without a ‘protective layer’ may be weaker, whereas those who are predisposed to having thicker skins may flourish more easily. If this is true, maybe we don’t feel a common bond despite the strains of life in a patriarchal shadow, but because of them.
This idea sounds great, and for a moment there I thought I’d solved it. But it’s not realistic to apply physical evolution to a cultural phenomenon without further research, and I’m not audacious enough to conflate the two here. Besides, this idea didn’t fit with all the responses. There were many responses from people who believed that gender was indeed a factor, but it was one of numerous parts that make up their being. I only received a smattering of responses with unequivocally positive answers. Phoebe Potts, author and artist of Good Eggs (Harper, 2010), replied that her gender “totally and emphatically” impacts her work.
But I also received many middle-stream answers. One such response came from Eden Rayz, a Boston based cellist and composer who said, “Gender impacts my music as much as all of the attributes of my identity. Gender, in my perspective, is just one of infinitely many attributes of a human.” I began to ask myself what wisdom could be garnered from my search?
The answer seemed to be a chronological one. When I looked at people’s responses they began to tilt on an axis of age, with generally older respondents feeling a more powerful impact of their gender. This makes sense to me. The society in which we currently define our gender, or are socialized to do so, is vastly different than that of the generation before us. Add to that the acceleration of change in some regions, albeit not even close to everywhere, and there’s bound to be some cultural fallout. The shackles of gender may not yet be cut from our wrists, but they are looser, in some ways, than they have been. It’s not outrageous to consider that people who grew up grappling with tighter bonds may be more aware of their relative freedom and thus connect more easily to those who have fought a similar battle.
So maybe Women’s History Month isn’t all bad. It certainly got me thinking, and sparked opportunities for my peers and I to reassess what we create, and why. My hope is that in the future we’re able to create a society that’s capable of appreciating diverse histories and cultures all year long. In that context, we would be able to look at each other and see multifaceted beings, and an abundance of experience informed by the whole of our three-dimensional selves.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite responses, by Daniel Alba, a New York based engineer and music producer: “Human beings, of all kinds, are incredibly complex in so many ways: family history, positive and negative experiences, cultural background, personality, gender, energy, mind, health, economic situation, people around us, and who knows what else. I think there are so many elements besides gender that influence our lives […] Life should be about joining with others, sharing your energy, contributing to everyone and everything around you in a way that you are adding, not subtracting with your existence.”