Celebrating female writers on International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day and to celebrate we are asking who is your favourite female author and what women writers recently rocked your socks?

I may write about non-fiction these days, but my early years were filled with fiction written by women. This is not because I felt strongly about reading female authors but because once someone placed a copy of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty in my tiny hands I became utterly obsessed with books about ponies. Between pestering my folk’s to buy me anything by Christine Pullein-Thompson and rampaging through the library looking for all things equine, if it had a horse in it, I tracked it down and read it with a dedication that was sadly missing from my devotion to schoolwork.

My first favourite writer was an Australian woman who wrote poetry and passion about horses and the Australian bush – Elyne Mitchell of the Silver Brumby series fame. Long before I could pronounce it, I yearned to see the slopes of Mount Kosciusko and its silver gums and herds of brumbies. (In fact, I’m not sure I can pronounce it. Cos-kus-zio? Cosk-usque-yo? Can I just call it the Big K?)

In college, I learned to love a bit of Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood and Ruth Park and spent more time digesting non-fiction – Naomi Klein take on consumerism and the media in her book’s No Logo and Shock Doctrine, Susan Faludi on feminism and how gender expectations affect both sexes. It wasn’t all heavy reading and high literature – I frequently sought some light relief with Robin Hobb who I’ve been reading for over a decade now and I still think writes some of the best character-driven fantasy out there.

Recent releases by women hogging the best spots on my bookshelf include Mira’s Grants Feed, a tale of politics and media in the post-zombie apocalypse world with a suitably savvy and complex female protagonist,  and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a study of neurosexism – the idea that hard-wired differences in the brains of the sexes accounts for the gender status quo –  which is particularly appropriate for the day that is in it.

Not that the day was conceived as a recent idea in the battle against sexist pseudo-science – originally called International Working Women’s Day, it has Eastern European and socialist origins and was first observed in 1911 in Germany. Demonstrations for International Women’s Day in Russia were the first stage of the Russian Revolution of 1917. While the day has changed since its inception, the original political and human rights theme still runs strong, and political and social awareness of the struggles of women worldwide are highlighted, with reasons for cheer celebrated. In 1977 the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.

And for those of you wondering, there is also an International Men’s Day on November 19, with a focus on men’s and boy’s health, improving gender relations, promoting gender equality, and highlighting positive male role models.  On the internet there is also an unofficial consensus that March 14th is Steak and Other Nice Thing we won’t name here Day, but I have never seen why both genders can’t enjoy that. I can even put on a great vegan chilli for the non-steak eaters out there.

Happy International Women’s Day, and happy reading!

Jane McCredie on Making Girls and Boys

In 2007, when a 12-year-old child successfully applied for hormonal treatment to prevent their female puberty because they wanted to live as a boy, it got Australian writer Jane McCredie wondering, what is it that makes us a boy or a girl? From cradle to grave, our perceived gender has a fundamental affect on what we choose, how we live, and how we think about the world and how the world sees us. But are sex and gender really that simple a matter?

The belief that differences between the sexes are fixed or “hard-wired” in the brain has been labeled “neurosexism” and it’s a concept I am seeing crop up more often. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender was one of my most interesting reads of 2010 dealing extensively with the pseudo-science around sex.  The word neurosexism is up for nomination as the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year 2010.

Evolutionary psychologists, trans-gendered people, children playing with trucks and dolls, hormone specialists – they all have different stories to tell about what makes us girls and boys and Jane’s book, Making Girls and Boys, interlaces those stories to look at sex, gender and identity, both in the labs and on the streets. I caught up with her to ask a few questions.

Why did you decide to write Making Girls and Boys, and why now?

In 2007, a 12-year-old child successfully applied to the Family Court to have hormonal treatment to prevent female puberty because, despite being born anatomically female, he wanted to live as a boy. In the wake of the case, I wrote a feature for a doctors’ magazine about what clinicians call gender identity disorder — it could also be called transsexualism — and particularly its manifestation in childhood. I was surprised to discover in the course of my research how early transsexual feelings appear, generally in toddlerhood. If a three-year-old child could have an absolute conviction they belonged to the other sex, I found myself wondering, what did that say about how all of us come to know which sex we belong to and what meaning that has in our lives?

So, when the publishers approached me shortly afterwards to ask if I was interested in writing a popular science book and did I have any ideas, that was the first thing that came to mind.

Neurosexism has been in the news a lot, including being nominated for the Macquarie Dictionary word of the year. Why do you think this topic is now attracting attention?

It’s definitely relevant. Science tends to look for, and exaggerate, differences rather than similarities between whatever groups it is studying. The new technologies of neuroimaging are giving us an unprecedented ability to look inside living brains, but I think too much is often read into some fairly inconclusive results, leading to claims about “female brains” and “male brains” that can be pretty hard to substantiate.

Gender is an interesting and contentious subject. How did people react when you told them what you were writing about?

Most people are fascinated. We all have to go through the process of becoming men or women — or, in some cases, not quite either or a bit of both. So it’s relevant to everybody. There have been some very successful books based on the premise that men and women are irreconcilably different, that we come from different planets or some such rubbish. Simplistic ideas like that can be seductive, but I think most people know that we human beings are a lot more complex and we don’t really fit into boxes very well. I think people are hungry for more complex, more nuanced information about men and women.

What was the most interesting part of researching  Making Boys and Girls?

I think the most interesting thing for me was probably the personal stories. I feel very grateful to the people who shared their various experiences of gender with me. Often, these were very different experiences from my own and it took a lot of courage for some of these people to go public. But it was also fascinating talking to the scientists and reading the research and seeing what the science really has to tell us beyond a lot of the myths that get created in an area like this.

While you are experienced in writing, did you find that writing a full-length non-fiction book for a general audience brought any specific challenges? What is the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

Writing any book is a hard, hard slog. Something I found difficult in the beginning was working out how to put myself into the book. I realised early that I couldn’t write a dispassionate, removed account of this topic as though it had no relevance for my own life. It probably would have helped if somebody had told me at the beginning just to relax and just let the personal material become part of the story when that seemed the natural thing to do.

Any advice for non-fiction/science writers looking at a topic and thinking, “I could write a book on that?”

Just do it. By all means try to get a publishing contract first as I was lucky enough to do. But the only way to write is… to just sit down and write.

Jane launches Making Girls and Boys on Thursday February  10th in Sydney, at Ariel Books (42-44 Oxford Street, Paddington). If you would like to attend, the launch is at 7:30pm – please RSVP to [email protected] or (02)93324581.

Seeing Red Over Stereotypes? Vent, and win a copy of Delusions of Gender.

“Woman has her range of duties, and her special functions, as man has his; and I would like to see each find his own place in his own level.”
Sir Edward Braddon (Tasmania, Free Trade) House of Representatives, 23 April 1902.

It well known that men don’t listen. Women, of course, can’t read maps. Women have smaller (possibly fluffy, certainly pink) brains that are great at empathising but bad at hard things, like maths and concentrating. Men can do complicated thinking but can’t do emotions because their brains consist of steel wool surrounding a solid block of logic. We can’t help it. It’s just the way our brains have been wired.

Seriously?

A lot of books would have you believe that there is an inevitable gap between the genders, vast and unbridgeable – well, unless you read the book, of course. Books, magazines and even scientific articles often cite immutable biological differences between the male and female brain as the reason.  Men are doomed to be shuffling Neanderthals, incapable of understanding communication more subtle than a club to the head, women are irrational shrews who must trick and cajole men into commitment before they accidently burn the cave down.

For those of you who find yourselves bristling at the blanket generalisations about both genders epitomised by books such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (or, as a friend of mine calls it, Men Are From Mars, Women Suck My… well, you can fill in rest yourself) here’s a tonic for what ails you.

Dr Cordelia Fine is an academic psychologist, writer and researcher at Melbourne University, and her new book Delusions of Gender is a rebuttal to all the latest pseudo-scientific claims we hear on a daily basis about the differences between the sexes being based in the brain. Challenging “neurosexism” – as it has come to be known – she argues that by thinking of the genders as intractabily different, serious and unjustified obstacles are being placed in the paths of children’s devopment. Critiquing the bad science and methodology of many claims and drawing on the latest research in developmental psychology, neuroscience, and social psychology, she puts forward a very convincing case for the mind’s malleability, and for society to be mindful of this plasticity.

It may sound like she’s swimming against the tide of opinion, but that’s exactly what she wants to do. She was inspired to write the book by the amount of “bad science” already out there, as she explained in an interview with Salon.

It began when I read a parenting book that claimed that hard-wired sex differences meant that girls and boys should be parented and taught differently. When I looked at the actual studies being used as evidence, I was really shocked by how badly the neuroscientific findings were being misrepresented. I saw the same thing going on in other popular books about gender, and when I looked, I was surprised to discover how little convincing evidence there was that, for example, the male brain is hard-wired to be good at understanding the world and the female brain is hard-wired to understand people.

We have two copies of Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine to giveaway. To win, we want you to tell us what people say about your gender that really gets your goat. Entries close at 5pm on Monday 1 November, so feel free to call up your most sexist “everybody knows” acquaintance or co-worker and get them to hold forth at length, safe in the knowledge that this time, when you brain explodes in fury, you could be winning a book out of it.