on losing the albatross

I have a dear friend who was my job-share partner when I was working as a conference organiser. He’s a lovely, generous, giant-hearted man who made me laugh constantly – still does, actually, when we get together. Whenever I exclaimed over some passing irritation in our daily work, he would put it to me, in his amused Scottish brogue: “Are you raging?”

Am I raging? No – on the contrary: today I am gliding along in a vivid rush of carefree insouciance, following a train of thought that made its final connection as I walked home from town, like the tumbler inside a padlock falling into place with a whisper and thunk.

I had been musing about yesterday’s concluding session at the Edinburgh Radical Independent Book Fair, a discussion with Kathleen Jamie and Esther Woolfson on the topic of Women, Nature and Wilderness. Esther gave a prepared talk at the beginning, in which she alluded scathingly to the dominance of male voice in the field of nature writing. At one point she referred to the Summer 2008 issue of GRANTA magazine which celebrated “The New Nature Writing” – with male contributors outnumbering female by 9 to 1.

What I was recalling was the reaction of the man sitting a couple seats away from me, as Esther gave her talk. He had snuffed indignantly a couple times, and when I glanced at him sidelong his face wore an expression of deliberately disdainful boredom for her remaining points.

This wasn’t the first visible shutdown I’d witnessed at the Book Fair. In our circle discussion about workplace unions, a woman volunteered at one point that she had been the Branch Secretary of her trade union for some years, and observed that as a woman she had been in the extreme minority. The branch office, she commented, had been composed mainly of middle-aged men, with predominantly adversarial approaches to what they perceived to be workplace battles. The middle-aged man near her rolled his eyes at her remark, and shifted himself in his chair in order to face away from her. She had clearly offended him by identifying this culture of male dominance.

There they go again! these men seemed to be saying in their body language. Another woman squawking about how unfair it is.

Indeed, a large part of the commentary in the Women, Nature and Wilderness session centred on the disproportionate male voice in nature writing, and the enduring archetype of the lone-hero-conquering-the-wild which recurs in the genre. So much of the session explored this problem of sexist prejudice that the panel chair felt compelled at one point to ask the men in the room how they felt about the turn the discussion had taken, and hoped aloud that they weren’t being made too uncomfortable by the opinions being voiced.

Holy heck, I thought: let’s just make sure the men are all feeling okay. Let’s make sure they haven’t been discomfited by this entirely valid critique of existing literature and the publishing industry which produces it. As long as the menfolk aren’t too badly put out, the women can just take it all on the chin.

So back to that whisper and thunk: the lock that sprang open as I was walking home today. The realisation came over me in a joyful rush that I no longer care what men think. The tremendous albatross I’ve carried around my neck for so much of my life, trying to discern and meet the expectations and presumed needs of men – it’s been growing lighter and lighter for years, until it has now, finally, just dropped off altogether. Just like that.

That’s not to say I don’t care what the individual men in my life think about me as an individual person; like anyone, I hope for the respect and care of my friends and family members. But do I feel any need to deny myself – my views and my right to voice them – for the sake of male comfort and ease-of-mind? I don’t. My feminist skin is growing thicker by the day, and my self-respect with it.

And for the record, you two middle-aged men I described above, you who both reacted so disrespectfully to what you heard women saying? I’m not impressed by you. Not a bit.