by Mary Hoffman
Being a feminist who had studied Linguistics with Michael Halliday at UCL, I had a big problem in the '70s with the word "Herstory." I thought then, and do now, that it made a political point at the expense of etymology and created an ugly word.
But recently I have heard of two incidents that have brought this formulation back to mind. There is a Primary school in the UK where top year juniors were recently given a writing task about WW2. So far, so common. BUT, the boys and girls were given different topics to write about.
Let us say, for the sake of argument that the boys had to write about the D-Day landings and the girls about women working in munitions factories. And now say that one girl chose to write about D-Day.
The girl's work was returned as unmarkable, because she had not chosen the "correct" topic for her gender. Is this possible in the 21st century, I ask myself. Is it even legal? It makes me so angry, I don't know where to begin.
I started my career in writing as a journalist, when the Times Educational Supplement published a long review-feature I had written on sex education books, to which they gave the title Sex and the Sunset. This was in the year of our lord 1972, nearly 40 years ago. I had found that one American writer had made twice the money by publishing two almost identical books, one called Sex for Boys and the other Sex for Girls. I remember that he said girls' sexual feelings were more diffuse than boys', "like looking at a beautiful sunset."
I don't think I would have believed it if anyone had told me then that gender divisions about what the sexes were presumed to feel, or care about, or know, let alone write about, would still be rearing their ugly heads four decades later.
And then I was told about this site:Scholastic My Story (boys) There is a companion one for girls. Now it's not that the books are all about fighting for boys and nursing for girls (though some of them are); it's the assumption that girls won't be interested in Vikings or boys in the Suffragettes [sic].
Which brings us back to the girl who wanted to write about D-Day. I might have been that girl. Suppose I wanted to do it in a historical novel now? No-one writing histfic today could have been there on that beach; would it be easier for me to do the research, imagine the characters, enter that world of 1944 if I had a male member? And if that is arrant nonsense, then why isn't it equally so for that ten-year-old, who wrote about what interested her?
(My thanks to Catherine Butler for alerting me to both these stories.)