Women In

I am working on my Rock syllabus and I am feeling frustrated by how patriarchy works!

Ha ha ha

Recently a relative of mine said something about domestic violence along the lines of “why don’t women just leave, they have shelters for this kind of thing” and I delivered this epic rant about, you know, “oh, it’s so easy to GO LIVE IN A HOMELESS SHELTER WITH YOUR CHILDREN, why on earth would someone not do that it sounds so mellow” and he was shocked and chagrined, which was a great feeling as my rants do not usually have their desired outcome of actually effecting change because they are too mean and loud, and then I also told him that me and every woman I know are constantly aware of the threat men pose, in one way or another, such that we unconsciously make evaluations and decisions about our own actions and behaviors based on how threatened we feel at any given moment, e.g. not walking down certain streets alone at night; avoiding loud groups of men; noticing who is on the bus and who gets off with you at your stop; noticing who sits next to you on the bus and what his vibe is; being instantly on ‘high alert’ if a man speaks to you in public at any time, because if it’s night then he might rape/murder you but even if it’s daytime and crowded you will probably still get a “smile!” and then a “bitch!” when you don’t respond; using shop windows as rearview mirrors to see who’s behind you; noticing “weapons of opportunity” when you feel nervous and calming yourself by imagining picking them up and defending yourself with them; and for example in my line of work being VERY aware of which of your male students have a creepy vibe and watching them closely and planning meetings with them during times when lots of other people are around, and quite frankly getting very stressed out if you have to give them a bad grade; and then just having to constantly steel yourself against the myriad thoughtless comments men throw at you throughout your day, from commenting on your body parts as you walk past them, to telling you you look pretty out of the blue, forcing you to smile and say thank you or risk them being all miffed and yelling something rude at you immediately, to “negging” you randomly as you’re just trying to walk down the sidewalk, to that weird thing they do where you’re walking past each other and they wait until you’re directly next to them and then they say “HI” abruptly which forces you to sort of interrupt your forward motion and jerk your head over to look at them as a reflex, basically I was just telling this relative of mine about how as a woman in the world you live with men CONSTANTLY DEMANDING YOUR ATTENTION AND FEELING THEY DESERVE IT.

And anyway, then you try to plan a syllabus about music history and even in the coolest, NEWEST textbook you are forced to negotiate garbage like a separate subject heading for “WOMEN in R&B” or “WOMEN in the blues” where the writing is all “indeed this was a great moment for American music but we would like to briefly talk about a couple of women who amazingly enough had some decent songs at this time” and you just want to scream, because NEWS FLASH, women FUCKING CREATED some of these genres or were at the very least completely equal players from the very get-go. For example, THE BLUES, that manly macho genre that saps like Bob Dylan associated with authentic American masculinity because of Robert Johnson wandering the ol’ dusty roads of the south with his ol’ beat-up Sears guitar or whatever? “The Blues” was actually begun by and popularized by women, even the term “the blues” was coined by a woman. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Mamie Smith, all these badass ladies in the teens and twenties became MEGA SUPERSTARS singing “blues” songs for huge audiences. They established the form, the lyrical content, the singing style. And when, a decade or so later, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson and all the blues guitar dudes came along, what songs do you think they were singing? Bessie Smith songs. Ma Rainey songs. Ida Cox songs. Indeed, one of those guys–I think Jefferson but I can’t remember–his first album had a sticker on it that said “Plays the Blues as good as a woman!” But because white dudes in Greenwich Village in the 60s who discovered all the Lomax recordings of rural blues didn’t give a shit about women, the story of the blues that’s been passed down to us is just the Robert Johnson story.

Not to mention, you know, THE BEATLES, whose early hits were all covers of girl group songs. Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh YEAH, but lets definitely have a throwaway sidebar on “women in rock n’ roll” like there aren’t that many of them so they don’t really matter to the teleological narrative of the genre.

Women are EFFACED from history, even though they contribute to it, is my point. Over and over again we are told that because of sexism and misogyny, women were excluded from contributing to the arts and sciences, alas, but it’s not true–they’ve always contributed, it’s just that people haven’t cared to remember them when they write down the stories of the Great Men Of History. They weren’t excluded during their lives, they were excluded after their deaths. Yes, they faced discrimination and bullshit and it was harder for them, but they were there, they made their mark. But they’re excluded by the STORY we pass down about whatever field they’re in. Ada Lovelace, Rosalind Franklin, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Elisabeth Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Christina Rossetti, the innumerable female troubadours of the Renaissance, the Blues Queens, not to mention “women in comedy,” where every time there’s a funny woman she’s hailed as “finally, a funny woman,” even though there’ve been INTERNATIONALLY FAMOUS funny women for generations. GENERATIONS!

Every great woman is presented as an exception. How can they all be exceptions when there are so many of them, everywhere you look, even hundreds of years ago?

Presenting great women as exceptions is what actually perpetuates sexism. Presenting “women in music” as exceptional within the actual mainstream of “music,” unqualified, perpetuates sexism. Lists of “best female guitarists” (where the top entries on the list are like at #83 on the “best guitarists” list, AS IF) perpetuate sexism. Yes, other stuff perpetuates sexism too, like laws, but this shit is fundamental. This shit is how we instinctively see the world and organize the information we encounter.

Jacquet de la Guerre was universally beloved in her own time–she was hailed as the heir to Lully, the next great French national treasure. She had operas commissioned by the KING OF FRANCE. She supported her entire family, including her husband, with her musical career. No one at the time had a problem with this. It’s only later, when somebody goes to write down the History of Music, does she get excluded. Because she was an “exception,” it would interrupt your linear history to talk about her. If the story of history is the story of women being horribly oppressed by patriarchy then it complicates your argument to present all these major female figures alongside the story of women’s exclusion from society. And God forbid we should acknowledge that the Great Brahms was super fucking inspired by Clara Schumann’s work, no, somehow it has to be the other way around, even though she was 14 years older than him and already an established star by the time he came around. No, it was her HUSBAND he who inspired him intellectually; Clara he just wanted to fuck or something (even though they quite famously never fucked). JESUS CHRIST.

Every year I teach my freshmen this made-up academese word, “ghettoize.” To ghettoize something is to make it other; to present it as already excluded from the mainstream. The irony of ghettoization in the humanities is that it initially happens as an attempt to INCLUDE other kinds of people who have traditionally been excluded from the stories we tell. So since the 70s there’s been this proliferation of “African American Literature” and “Women in Music” and “Gay and Lesbian cinema” and such. But the kind of work those designations–instigated with the BEST of intentions!–do subtly upholds the whole exclusion narrative in the first place. It’s not “Literature,” it’s “AFRICAN AMERICAN Literature.” It’s not universal, like Mark Twain or Fitzgerald or Salinger, it’s niche, it’s “for” a certain type of person. It’s “chick lit.”

So fuck no, textbook, I will not be having a “Women in R&B” unit in my syllabus.


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4 Responses to Women In

  1. Sarah Meadows says:

    I’m sure you’ve seen this, but on the very slim chance that you’ve not: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/13/magazine/blues.html?_r=0


  2. Zot says:

    At the risk of sounding like a sexist patriarch I must observe that although my beloved Beatles were fans of girl groups and covered several girl group songs in their early days none of them were hits. The Beatles wrote their early hits for the most part and their most successful cover was “Twist and Shout” which was originally by the Isley Brothers. No doubt women have gotten short shrift in pop music history though and you could throw in Jackie DeShannon, Marianne Faithfull, Carolyn Hester, Sylvia Fricker, Jan Errico, Sandy Denny and the Runaways among many other female pop music figures who have never gotten the respect and credit they deserved.

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