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People = Male. Part 4

Published 11th January, 2021 in MRP Guest Blogger

The story so far: A visit with my grandson to story time at the library has made me ponder the many privileges men have over women. Where some of those privileges are able to be viewed as statistics and percentages, the one that is embedded in our language and literature is less often identified. I wonder when I started to notice it myself.

Thinking that people = male intensified in my teens and early twenties. I turned resolutely to male authors in those years until – Doris Lessing, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood.

As a young teenager I read all of Gerald Durrell’s books, starting with My Family and Other Animals. As ever, the males (Gerry, Larry, Leslie and an assortment of Corfu’s inhabitants and visitors) are the instigators of every adventure, and the ones to identify with. Who would want to be Margo, absorbed in her clothes, her looks and her figure, or Mother, who is overruled from the start?

‘Don’t be ridiculous, dear,’ said Mother firmly; ‘[selling the house is] quite out of the question. It would be madness.’
So we sold the house and fled from the gloom of the English summer, like a flock of migrating swallows. [1]

I read folk tales, myths and legends, where lots of men do lots of things that are either heroic or evil. Women stand on the sidelines, get raped and/or bear children. In the books I was reading the goddesses got short shrift, little time wasted on them when there were Achilles’ exploits to detail or Zeus’s latest conquest to describe.

At some stage in my teenage years I started reading lots of sci-fi, which was written almost exclusively by men in those days. I read Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke, Robert Silverberg, Kurt Vonnegut Jr – then just as suddenly as I’d started, I stopped. It wasn’t until the year 2000, aptly, that I read any sci-fi again. I was living in France for six months (that’s another story) and the local library had one shelf of English language books. I read them all, including one by Ray Bradbury called Death is a Lonely Business. I had forgotten how mesmerising he was. This time I also noticed not only how tightly wound his ideas and plots are, but also how good his writing is.

There was no one in the hall, of course.
Whoever had been there, if they ever were, had shut a door quickly, or run towards the front or out the back. Where the night came in in an invisible stream, a long winding river of wind, bringing with it memories of things eaten and things discarded, things desired, things no longer wanted. [p.167]

That’s from one page of the book that I photocopied, and that has accompanied me ever since, moved from house to house.

When I dropped sci-fi as a teenager I moved from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Franz Kafka, John Fowles, James Joyce, William Faulkner. All male. Their active characters all male. Molly Bloom is no poster girl for feminism.

In my early twenties I finally swung around to books by women, about women. Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook), Ursula Le Guin (Earthsea trilogy). Even thinking about those books now takes me back to a wilder and more passionate era, a time of blunt, unquestioning optimism. Those books held so much promise, as if we were forging ahead, as if the world was only on an upward trajectory of improvement, for women, for men, for the environment, for the triumph of the obvious – equity, care for ourselves and the planet. In their elegant, confident upturnings of the status quo those women were writing a different way of looking at the world.

Margaret Atwood’s Life Before Man was a revelation with its messy relationships and questioning characters. It was so familiar. Lesje – timorous, jumpy, accommodating, understanding – tries to understand what motivates her own and everyone else’s behaviour, criticises her own failings and stumbles through her work and her life. She persists in a relationship with William where she is bored and unfulfilled, leaving only when he rapes her.  She becomes involved with Nate who is, again, unfulfilling.

It’s no good, she should say to him. It’s no use. But that isn’t true: it is good, it is of use. Some days, some minutes. From time to time. [p.267][2]

Her clarity comes at the end. This is no reconciliation, no tying up of loose ends in the way I’d come to expect of fiction, and maybe even expected of life. When William engineers a meeting with her they have lunch at a café.

His fingers hold the glass, his other hand lies on the table, his neck comes out of his shirt collar, which is light green, and on top of that is his head. His eyes are blue and there are two of them. This is the sum total of William in the present tense. [p.295]

Lesje’s freedom from being defined by the men in her life is complete when she contemplates her pregnancy.

She will tell Nate today, this evening. Will he forgive her? (Forgiveness is not what she needs; not, anyway, from Nate. She would prefer instead to forgive, someone, somehow, for something; but she isn’t sure where to begin.) [p.311]

Angela Carter, meanwhile, was reconfiguring the women in fairy tales in her collection, The Bloody Chamber. In ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, a riff on Beauty and the Beast, the young woman, gambled away by her feckless father, is brought before The Beast and informed that he wishes to see her naked.

I could scarcely believe my ears. I let out a raucous guffaw; no young lady laughs like that! my old nurse used to remonstrate. But I did. And do. [p.58] [3]

She sets her own terms for the encounter. She is given a clockwork maid and considers that she herself had ‘been allotted only the same kind of imitative life amongst men that the doll-maker had given her’. [p.63] This thought prompts her to freedom, to choosing a life with The Beast rather than a return to a life where she had been a thing of ‘impassivity’, forced ‘mutely to witness folly’ and to be bargained away by her father.

The Bloody Chamber and Life Before Man were both published in 1979, the year before Jeanette Silveira published her article ‘Generic masculine words and thinking’ that included the formula ‘people = male’. Silveira had concluded ‘that a reduction in the generic use of ‘man’ and ‘he’ would result in a long term reduction in sexist thinking.’ [4]

Forty years later, the NSW government is publishing cheery pamphlets with names like ‘Advancing Women’ and ‘NSW Women’s Strategy 2018-2022: Advancing economic and social equality in NSW’ that talk about how ‘unconscious bias’ affects  women’s career choices and their chances in job interviews. These pamphlets don’t spell out the source of ‘unconscious bias’. They don’t quote Silveira or point out that our use of language is the source of that bias, so it’s clear that any ‘reduction in sexist thinking’ is still a long-term hope, along with advances in economic and social equality.

Any change comes in fits and starts, with surges and regressions. I read about people asking to be addressed as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’. I read about gender fluidity gaining traction, putting the emphasis on the person rather than their gender. But then I read the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ media release about the ‘milestone’ in January 2020 of 30.7% of directors on ASX200 boards being women and I wonder what they’re celebrating. Of these top 200 companies, 100 (50%) had failed to reach a target of 30% female directors while 34 (17%) had only one female director and five (2.5%) still had no female directors [5]. It turns out that the humble 30% target comes from an international group called the 30% Club that has been working actively on getting female directors onto company boards over the last five years, with research and events, steering committees and key initiatives. The original target was 30% by 2018 but only the UK and Australia have hit that mark in 2020, so they’ve extended the target to 30% by 2021. When I read that, I think it’s right for my head to clang with impatience when I listen to a librarian merrily singing about each little monkey bumping ‘his’ head. Why ‘his’? Every time?

Read Kathy’s first posts with us: ‘People = Male. Part 1’‘People = Male. Part 2’, and ‘People = Male. Part 3’.

Kathy Prokhovnik writes fiction (long form, short stories and microfiction) and non-fiction. Her blog covers all bases. Her story ‘Still life’ was a finalist in the MRP short story competition 2019 and published in We’ll stand in that place and other stories. She was recently awarded a two-week fellowship in the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre 2021 program to work on her second novel, The Dogs.


[1] Gerald Durrell, My family and other animals. Penguin Books Ltd, 1969 p.17.

[2] From the Jonathan Cape edition, 1980.

[3] From the King Penguin edition, 1981.



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