Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Siri Hustvedt in Heidelberg

Charlotte Otter in Paris*

Last night I had the honour of hearing Siri Hustvedt read from and talk about the ideas that informed her new novel The Summer Without Men. Heidelberg doesn’t get many visits from major literary celebrities and Hustvedt is up there in my top five favourite authors, so despite having a husband out of town, babysitters canceling at the seventeenth hour, a parking snarfu in the city centre, I made it, clutching my little blue ticket like Charlie gaining admittance to the chocolate factory.

It was worth it. Siri is razor-sharp, witty and incisive. She read sections from the book in English, which a local actress then read in German.

The Summer Without Men – which I haven’t finished yet, but am savouring like a delicious treat – is the story of Mia, a poet whose scientist husband Boris decides he needs a pause after thirty years of marriage.

“The Pause was French with limp but shiny brown hair. She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rectangular glasses, and an excellent mind. She was young, of course, twenty years younger than I was, and my suspicion is that Boris had lusted after his colleague for some time before he lunged at her significant regions.”

Mia goes mad for a short time, a Brief Psychotic Disorder her doctors call it, and then retreats home to her mother in Minnesota, where she spends a summer in the republic of women, a summer without men.

Vital to the novel is the word “pause”. Boris does not request a stop because he wants to “keep the narrative open, in case he changed his mind.” Hustvedt said last night that the novel itself is a pause in the life of the character, the place between Crazy Winter and Sane Fall.

She also said that this was her first attempt at comedy. Comedy is subversive and she was trying to subvert and resist the idea that “the imagination and intellect of women is inferior to the imagination and intellect of men”. Men and women walk around with this unconscious prejudice and she was attempting to unpick it.

Her main tool in doing so was irony. “The tone is the thing. This is a banal situation. But Anna Karenina is banal. So is Madame Bovary. Just because it is a banal story, told with irony, doesn’t mean it is without feeling.” Later, when the moderator suggested that irony emancipates, she agreed, “Totally!” And later, “Where would we be without it?”

I haven’t reached this part yet, but during her summer, Mia takes herself on an intellectual journey through literature, science and philosophy, trying to find a “territory of ammunition” where she can understand what has happened to her. Hustvedt described this as a dance, one in which she herself is also engaged. She talked in detail about how the science of the gendered brain is being undermined, saying that the brain is plastic and changes according to experience. “The idea that women think differently is untenable.” She was not dismissing neurobiology, only saying that it was full of unconscious perceptions about women and much of of these prejudices go unacknowledged.

Her conclusion was that there is a small biological difference between the sexes and not much more. Both Hustvedt and her narrator come to realise that what is important is only “how much difference that difference makes and how we choose to frame it.”

It was all  highly interesting, especially as Hustvedt operates in a literary milieu that damns women’s writing as domestic, while men’s writing is of course about the human condition. If the floor had been opened to questions, this was what I was planning to ask her, but I feel that she answered me anyway: to reverse the stereotypes and prejudices about women, gender and difference we must talk, subvert, mock, play and use irony. We shouldn’t be frighten to question received ideas in literature, science and philosophy and re-present them for our own use. There are many examples of this in The Summer Without Men, but the best is that of a certain Renaldus Columbus, who in 1559 – to the stupefecation of many women – was credited with discovering the clitoris.

To this, Mia pens a limerick:

“When Columbus spied the Mount of bliss,

He stopped and asked himself, “What is this?”

A button, a pea?

An anomaly?

No, silly man, it’s a clitoris!”

It was a fabulous and dazzling evening, only slightly spoilt by the moderator, who had clearly decided not to plan any questions in advance and think on his feet. As a result, he came across as woolly, pompous and arrogant. Which in the light of what Hustvedt is saying about gendered perceptions of intelligence is rather ironic.

*On her tour of Europe, Siri Hustvedt did a reading at Shakespeare and Company in Paris


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Why We Need Women’s Day

It’s the 100th International Women’s Day and here at Phlegm Central, I’d like to give you an intelligent post about why we still need a day to celebrate women and to mark the inequities between being a woman and being a man in 2011. However the phlegm has invaded my brain so I’m only able to give you bullet points:

  • glass ceilings
  • corrective rape
  • clitorodectomies
  • sex slavery
  • pay gaps
  • domestic violence
  • honour killings

And the facts that:

  • one in five women will become victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime
  • 19% of parliamentarians worldwide are women
  • women own 1% of the world’s property but do 66% of the world’s work
  • women make up 75% of the world’s illiterate population
  • two-thirds of children denied schooling worldwide are girls
  • women hold 12% of board-level positions in the UK

We need International Women’s Day because women around the world – even in your country – are systematically abused and discriminated against. In the absence of my own ability to cobble thoughts together, here’s what some other women have had to say:

Marielle Frostrup on feminism’s global challenge

Susie Mesure on countries where women on the march (including South Africa)

The Guardian’s 100 Inspiring Women

Dame Judi Dench and Daniel Craig’s video Are We Equals?

Lia’s post on Celebrating Women

Marie’s riposte to the question ‘Why Isn’t there an International Men’s Day?’

Lilian’s post on Yiddish and the Literature of Prayer

Helen G at The F-Word on the equality debate

Bluemilk who’s sick like me but still on the hunt for great feminist bloggers

Dad Who Writes on Patti Smith

Litlove’s essay A Woman’s World about how we can all stop chastising ourselves quite so fiercely and learn to worry less.

Annie Lennox talks to other women about feminism and the gap between developed and developing countries here. Top quote from Beverley Knight: ‘It’s interesting that in the countries where women have the least power, the least equality, International Women’s Day is much more treasured. Here in Britain, with our excess of everything, the very things that are so precious that the Emmeline Pankhursts gave their spirit and their lives to, we take for granted. We don’t think about the struggle that other women have across the world.’

If you’ve written a post about IWD or read an inspiring article, let me know and I’ll link to it here.


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Holla back!

What’s wrong with this film review published in today’s Observer? Can you spot the anomaly?

Michael Rowe, an Australian writer-director currently resident in Mexico, won the Caméra d’or last May for best first film in the official programme at Cannes for this chamber film. All but the opening scene set in a supermarket takes place in the cramped Mexico City flat of freelance business reporter Laura, a single woman of peasant stock from Oaxaca, an impoverished state in the far south. Through loneliness and low self-esteem, this broad-hipped young woman with large, firm breasts picks up lovers for the night, or in some cases hour-long stands. They look down on and patronise her, and when one of them, the preening, would-be actor Arturo, starts abusing her physically, she draws him into an increasingly dangerous sadomasochistic relationship to win his approval and elicit a little tenderness. It’s an intense, powerful and at times deeply painful movie, a serious exercise in sexual politics, and Mónica del Carmen as Laura gives an outstanding, brave performance.

If it read like this instead, would you notice?

Michael Rowe, an Australian writer-director currently resident in Mexico, won the Caméra d’or last May for best first film in the official programme at Cannes for this chamber film. All but the opening scene set in a supermarket takes place in the cramped Mexico City flat of freelance business reporter Laura, a single woman of peasant stock from Oaxaca, an impoverished state in the far south. Through loneliness and low self-esteem, this young woman picks up lovers for the night, or in some cases hour-long stands. They look down on and patronise her, and when one of them, the preening, would-be actor Arturo, with a bulging package, starts abusing her physically, she draws him into an increasingly dangerous sadomasochistic relationship to win his approval and elicit a little tenderness. It’s an intense, powerful and at times deeply painful movie, a serious exercise in sexual politics, and Mónica del Carmen as Laura gives an outstanding, brave performance.

My question is this: how is the size and shape of the young woman’s breasts even vaguely relevant to the film, to the actress’s performance or to the review? They clearly enhanced the reviewer’s personal enjoyment of the movie but describing them is more than a Freudian slip, it’s a huge bloody pratfall, that in filmic terms would be signalled by bananas, Peter Sellers and mocking laughter.

In Anna Karenina, Tolsoy describes the work of the peasants in the fields and at one point lovingly describes the shape of a young worker’s breasts. Having never once described, or even alluded to the breasts of the upper-class and noble women in the novel, this brief sentence starkly signals the author’s prejudices: young peasant women represent sex and sex that is to be appropriated by the ruling class.

However, we are a long way from 1877. I don’t expect to find superfluous breast descriptions in my Sunday Observer. It spoils my morning and I lose respect for people whose intelligent reviews I have enjoyed for a long time.

Don’t do it, Phillip French.


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Gender Equality in Norway

I’d just like to point you to this great post about the amazing strides Norway has made towards gender equality. The country has set a global record: it has the highest number of female non-executive directors of companies (40%) in the world. Norway has achieved this after the introduction of a compulsory quota. Keep reading to the end, where there is a brilliant quote about Pippi Longstocking as a role model for girls. “Never sell yourself cheap. For your own sake and for the sake of all those women who come after.” I love that.

I was talking to a dear friend last night who is an executive in a South African company, and I made mention of her ability to “wing it”. “It’s true,” she laughed, “But don’t tell anyone.” In the light of this post I read, I want to retract that statement. Her experience is hard-earned and hard-gained. Don’t sell yourself cheap, you clever, wonderful friend of mine. You are worth every cent of that large salary, and you are earning it not only for yourself, but for our daughters.

If you are interested in hearing more about the Female Future project in Norway, you can listen to this BBC Women’s Hour programme on the same topic that I heard in January, here.

(By the way, the post I’ve linked to was written by my husband. I’m sleeping with a gender equality activist!)


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The Feminist Motherhood Meme

This is so much more than a meme. I found this list of questions about motherhood and feminism (which originated with bluemilk) over at Penguin unearthed, and have enjoyed chewing over them. Warning: slight rants ahead.

How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?

My feminism comes from outrage at injustice: I am outraged that fundamentalist religions of all kinds oppress women in the name of their beliefs, I am outraged that women die, are trafficked, raped, abused, have their genitals mutilated, are blamed for the HIV virus that their men pass to them, do not have a voice in their own homes, do not receive an education and must serve men.

My feminism came very young: probably at 11 when my father divorced my mother and left his family for another woman. That was a defining moment for me – I grew up overnight, and took on board the message that I should rely on no-one but myself because other people let you down. As I grew older that began to mean getting into a good university and following the career of my choice: journalism and writing. As I head into my forties, my feminism becomes less about me and more about women in general.

Feminism definitely preceeded motherhood for me. I only began to seriously think about motherhood when I was 28 and started meeting ridiculously cute infants. I thought, “I want one!” but never for one minute thought about how that would change me or my goals. I was after an adorable accessory of my own.

What has surprised you most about motherhood? How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

The intensity of emotions, both positive and negative, surprised and continues to surprise me about motherhood. I cried for days when all my children were born, sad tears, happy tears, confused and anxious ones. I remember thinking, “A baby won’t change MY life! It will have to fit in with whatever I want to do”, but then on Day Six of Life, Lily developed colic and cried for three months, so there was no going to restaurants and whisking her places because she would scream and scream. I was more her accessory than she was mine. I learnt fast to shape my life to hers, and nothing has changed since. My children have taught me flexibility.

My feminism has become far more general and less specific. I no longer rail at any personal glass ceiling I may have encountered (nor the idiot – no gender mentioned – boss who broke the news to me at the last minute that I couldn’t telecommute from London to his team in Germany, thus leaving me without any maternity benefits when I became pregnant working out his company’s insane six-month notice period. No. I won’t mention him.) or any ridiculously paternalistic boyfriends I might have allowed to patronise me as a teenager. I believe I am living out my potential. However, I am enraged that there are so many millions of women who are prevented from doing so. THAT makes me angry.

Motherhood has softened me in that I see my husband’s (different but equal) style of parenting as beneficial and lovely for our children. At first, I wanted him to parent My Way. Now I see that His Way is equally wonderful and that the children love it. Motherhood has been a kind of sacrifice for me, a putting-on-hold of putting-me-first, but has also allowed me to forge intensely close and satisfying relationships with three individuals who wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me. The joy of watching them grow and become themselves far outweighs any superficial strokes I might be receiving now in a work environment. Plus I manage to raise them AND work as a writer, so I feel lucky and honoured to be doing both.

What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

I’m not sure what makes my mothering feminist. My expectations of my children are identical, regardless of their gender. I encourage my children to be true to themselves, regardless of their gender. I encourage them all to show kindness to others, to listen and be polite. I kiss them all equally. I support their choices and always will, though I might disencourage them from becoming lap-dancers or suicide bombers. I like that they see their father perform household tasks, and I like that they see me at my computer working.

Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?

Occasionally, I’ve wondered how I, with my feminist principles, have ended up as a work-from-home mother but I believe that’s a choice I’ve made out of love and good fortune. I feel compromised and grumbly if my family have left the house in a mess and since I’m the one at home, I’ve got to make the choice of ignoring it or clearing it up. I certainly don’t feel that I’ve failed as a feminist mother.

Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?

No, I think at times my feminism has been subdued by the all-consuming task of parenting. But I have no trouble saying I am both a feminist and a mother.

Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?

I try to accept the sacrifice gracefully. My time in the big, wide world – should I choose it – will come.

If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?

He accepts it as part of me. He doesn’t see it as some weird addendum to my personality. He is also one of the most fair-minded, kind and non-judgmental people I know.

If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?

I have used aspects of attachment parenting (sleeping with my babies, fairly long-term breast-feeding, some baby-wearing) but am not an attachment parenting proselytizer. However, there were times when all three of my children were small that I felt “in service” to them. At very tired, over-wrought moments I might have resented that, but I am grateful to the attachment parenting now – and my husband loved all the wearing, carrying and cuddling too – because we have such intensely close bonds. Our children are at home with us, wherever we are in the world.

Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?

I don’t think feminism has failed mothers, but I do think women fail each other. Women judge each other for ridiculous reasons, usually because someone has made a different choice. Feminism has given women freedom of choice, and we should embrace the fact that some of us can go out and be CEOs, others can be stay-at-home mothers, others can juggle work and kids, others may not want kids, others will breast-feed while some would never consider it. Women need to accept each other’s choices and support each other more. We are so damn lucky to HAVE choices – there are millions of women in the third world who don’t have that luxury. Whether we’re feminists or not, mothers or not, we should stop failing each other, and start loving each other a little more and judging each other a little less.


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Asking for Help

I grew up with the twisted notion that being a grown-up meant not asking for help. To me, being an adult signalled independence and the ability to cope with whatever life threw at you. I don’t know where this came from, because my mother always seemed to have loads of friends who fluttered around her helpfully when crises arose, and nobody ever said me, “You’re going to have to go it alone”. But somehow I acquired the idea that you’re on your own and that’s the way it is.

After my recent dose of the blues, a few people said a few things to me that made me think. One friend said, “When you get depressed, you disappear into your house and you don’t tell anyone. We think you don’t want to see us.” Another friend said, “It makes people feel loved when you ask them for help.” My husband said, “How can I tell you’re feeling depressed if you don’t tell me?”

I’m starting to realise that asking for help is part of being a grown-up. Admitting that things are hideous and you feel terrible and you want some comfort is actually quite a mature thing to do. On that note, dear bloggers, here is me asking for help. The problem is: housework. I don’t want you to come round and do my housework for me, but I need some advice.

Apparently, French women enjoy doing housework. Are they mad? I am crap at housework, and have mixed feelings about that. Why I am not a deliciously bustling French woman, keeping my home spotless and my man firmly under control? Part of me takes a stupid pride in the fact that I don’t have the housework gene and thus far have not tried to acquire it, while part of me is faintly ashamed that we don’t have a perfect home. My lovely husband appears to suffer from none of these kinds of self-doubt, so maybe I should take a leaf from his book.

When we made the decision years ago that I would stay home and look after our kids when they were little, I had no idea how many hours of housework that would entail. I’ve always had a cleaner once a week, so am lucky that I don’t have to do the really hideous tasks, but three children do make a lot of cooking/laundry/dish-washing/planning/preparation/tidying. My motto has always been “people before objects” and that is the haphazard way my kids are being brought up. I’d rather spend time with them than polish the silver, or organise the toys into logical groups, or swab the floor (it was done two days ago – that’s enough, surely?). But I do try to aim for order of a sort.

In South Africa, having a housekeeper who turns up for work on a daily basis, or even lives in, is the norm. This means that the horrible tasks are delegated to someone else, which is fine in terms of job creation in a land with 40% unemployment, but has meant three things for me:

1) I have no idea how to do housework well. Anything I have learnt I have done so by trial and error. I am unlike the French women in that I have no idea what is the “right way”, if such a thing exists. And the same goes for my husband.

2) I don’t know how to teach my children to participate in housework, because no-one ever taught me. And unless I go back to South Africa, or somewhere else where low-paid houseworkers/nannies relieve parents of their duties, I am going to have to teach them how to help. I don’t want to turn them into little household slaves but I also don’t want them to become brats, so I need them to learn some skills in order to become useful adults one day. I would also like my son to grow up as housework-savvy as his sisters so that he can be a good partner in the future, and not a man-child in his home. (See Rachel Johnson’s article on the very same topic.)

3) I am used to a clean house, that is kept so by someone else, so my standards and my ability don’t match. That gap is the place where I beat myself up, usually in my mother-in-law’s voice or in that of one of my exceedingly clean neighbours. An hour or so of that kind of internal criticism is enough to bring on a bout of depression.

So for those of you who grew up in countries where people looked after their own homes, and where children were expected to help, here are my questions:

1) At what age were you expected to start doing household chores? What were considered age-appropriate chores?

2) Were you ever paid for doing chores? Did you receive rewards in any way, or was it expected?

3) How did your parents regulate your chores? For example, if you didn’t do them, was your pocket-money docked?

4) Were the chores in your home sexist? Or did boys and girls do the same work?

Any ideas or comments are welome.

(Feeling very grown-up now. May have to go and put on some lipstick.)


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Looking and Leering

I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful Eat, Pray, Love which, apart from being well and wittily told, is also a book full of ideas. Over at Books and Bicycles, Dorothy is reviewing it section by section and engaging with it interestingly. You might want to read Dorothy’s reviews here and here. In the Eat section of the book, Gilbert spends three months in Italy, learning Italian, eating and exploring hedonistic pleasure. One of the things she mentions briefly is that she finds, now that she is in her thirties, that Italian men no longer look at her. She wonders if she has become invisible. A friend explains to her that Italian men are becoming more politically correct and while they are looking at her, they are no longer shouting comments and trying to pinch her bum. Gilbert is not sure if she is pleased or disappointed at this change in behaviour.

I have been having this discussion with various girlfriends recently. One friend, a beauty from Argentina, says she loathes being looked at by men, that it makes her uncomfortable. Another, a statuesque German doctor, says now that she is in her forties and the mother of three children, she feels she doesn’t get looked at anymore and that saddens her. She is scared of becoming invisible. Another friend complains of a man at work who stares at her disquietingly. She doesn’t mind being thought of as attractive, but she finds the overt staring unnecessary. She’d prefer him not to stare at all.

The question is: at what point does looking become leering? We all like to look at beauty, whether it’s male beauty, female beauty or the beauty of a night sky full of stars. We like to appreciate someone’s neat figure, or lovely hair, or strong calf muscles. That kind of appreciation can be done covertly and without the recipient of the look even knowing they are being gazed at.I think when a look tips over to a stare or even a leer, that the process of looking engages the recipient who then has to decide how to respond. There’s a dad at kindergarten who stares at me. A very small, but very egotistical, part of me enjoys the fact that I may still have something that’s worth looking at, but his gaze does make me uncomfortable. I find that when I’m near him, my instinct is telling me to flee. In a slightly different context, Emily explains why this happens:

I chalked this feeling up to leftover instincts emanating from the oldest region of my brain, which still believes we all live in caves and might get knocked over the head and dragged to one that’s not so nicely decorated, and convinced myself I was ignoring it.

I know for sure I definitely don’t want to go anywhere near Kindergarten Dad’s cave. I also know, because I studied English Literature and Criticism, that a gaze objectifies. When a person is objectified, they are no longer a person, but a hunk of flesh. And when you have a hunk of flesh, well, you can do anything do it, as the spammers (who visit here more frequently than I would like) and the dark underbelly of the Internet will attest. It’s a few short steps from a leer to an act of violence.

However, if a small group of my women friends can have such disparate views on how much/how little they like to be looked at, then it’s no wonder – surrounded by the objectification industry as we are – that men such as Kindergarten Dad have no idea how much or how little looking is acceptable. Sage writes extremely interestingly on how a flirt can turn into sexual harrassment. Her core theory is that every woman is different and men need to learn to read the signals before they cross the line. I think when we are all looking, we need to ignore all our training in objectification, remember that we are looking at a person and learn to how withdraw our look before it turns into a leer.

I know that I like looking. Frankly, as a married woman who is loyal to her husband, that’s pretty much all that is available to me. Recently I was a little ashamed to discover that one receipient of my gaze was younger and a whole lot more gauche than his rear view suggested, but I still think my looking is covert and not at all suggestive. As Natalia Antonova just said,

Beauty brings us closer to God. And beauty is no prisoner to the male gaze. From the banner of this blog to the deepest recesses of my immortal soul – I am staring at you, fellas, in a good way.

Looking in a good way is appreciating, not appraising. That’s better than staring, gazing or leering. We all need to remember that.