On the Vindication of Women Writers Part 2

Reading further through the major Guardian interview with Margaret MacMillan, Oxford warden and don, I feel compelled to continue this Sunday’s “Sermon”. 
Simon Moss, the interviewer d’un age certain, somehow needs to include in his article about this magnificent scholar, her relationship to her MALE ancestor, Lloyd George (no mention of the other half of the genetic equation). When he asks her why she hasn’t traded on this personal history MacMillan responds that she wants “to be seen as myself”. Besides, she says, she’s Canadian.
An academic for a few decades in “a vocationally oriented institution” (Moss’s put-down of Ryerson, a top-notch Canadian school), he asks MacMillan why she hadn’t gone “off to some top-notch university… in the United States?” – ah I guess there aren’t any top notch universities in Canada Mr. Moss. 
“I didn’t want to,” she responds, “In many ways it was the best thing to happen to me. I started out teaching history to nurses, engineers, journalists, public health inspectors. A lot of them thought history was a waste of time and they didn’t want to be there, but I learned how to teach and there was a great deal of satisfaction.”
Imagine! Wanting to teach to people doing real jobs? Nurses (a predominantly female profession, what a waste of time Mr. Moss implies)! I mean what could a public health inspector possibly get out of learning all about the Public Health Act of 1848 or 1875 for heaven’s sake??? (plenty in fact). 
Indicative of the subject at hand (The Vindication of Women Writers Part 2), MacMillan wasn’t “successful”, as inferred by the interviewer, until after her book on the 1919 Paris Peace talks, “Peacemakers” (2001) was published. This, says MacMillan, was a book about “a bunch of dead white men sitting around a table talking about peace treaties [about a war started by the same constuency]” and she has a drawerful of rejection letters testifying to her commitment to seeing it published. It was after it became a bestseller that she hit the big time academically and as a writer. 
Moss the interviewer digs at her and, contextually, at mature women writers and scholars I believe, when he asks her, “Why the relative dawdle?”
MacMillan responds, “I was married at the time, and had a job.” Imagine had she answered, “I was married and had a job raising children” – quelle über-dawdle!!!
The interviewer asks if MacMillan sees her “elevation” (my emphasis) to Oxford don as being a “late flowering”. She responds,’Yes. One of my brothers said, “we’re all on the racetrack and you’re the horse that is ambling along and not doing much. Then suddenly you get a burst of energy as you come round the clubhouse turn and go whoosh”. Again, look at the language even HER BROTHER USES… he implies that being a wife with a job and teaching history to non-academics, that she is ‘ambling along’ and that she is ‘not doing much’. Really? Then too, how he sees their lives and careers as a competition. Proud I am guessing, but possibly threatened by this success? It’s difficult for some men to experience being husband or brother of, rather than the opposite.
The interviewer concurs with this view and continues with the metaphor… “She makes a gesture that suggests a horse surging through the field to win the race, which is just what she’s done.” In other words, MacMillan has “won” the race of life by becoming an Oxford don and being a publishing darling. Well 20 years ago I bought her book, “Women of the Raj” and found it engrossing, well written, informative. However, the subject was on WOMEN, ergo, a nice “ambling along” project of little worth to Moss et al. I guess.
The blatant sexism of this article is SO UNWORTHY of Professor MacMillan who is a good and even scholar, and equally of importance, respectful to her audience.
My final comment is the ridiculous tag line on the article about this very serious and mature voice who is guiding us into the centenary of the war years with her book, “The War That Ended Peace” (2013). It reads: Margaret MacMillan “Don’t ask me who started the war or I’ll burst into tears”. Of all the erudite quotes he could choose from, he chooses this one, and with one fell swoop, reduces this mature, sane voice, to being an emotional, ergo untrustworthy, woman.
When will the Guardian retire the old goats who are really incapable of hearing what women have to say?



Vindication of Women Writers Part 1

I am reflecting upon some comments made by the poet Sean O’Brien at the Robert Graves Conference in Majorca. O’Brien gave a rather good paper, ‘Missing, Presumed Dead? Graves and Contemporary Poetry’. But he marred his presentation with cheap digs at Laura Riding, Graves’s lover and collaborator for 13 years, and who, I believe, may have saved his post-war sanity if not his life (then the opposite too but that’s another story for later!), and certainly was a HUGE influence for the good on his work from 1926-1936. Worse though, were O’Brien’s comments about “older lady writers”, and his caution to poets who give workshops to ignore them “at your peril” [these “hobby writers” are the bread and butter i.e. a necessary evil]. He received the cheap chuckle from the audience he’d anticipated.
Well after enduring an opening lecture by another male poet of an age, in which misogynist clangers were dropped left and right, and the de rigeur digs at Riding (cheap laughs to a chapel already half-converted), I felt like getting up and walking out, but in both cases I didn’t. Why? Because I didn’t want to be rude to my host, the very kind and generous William Graves, the poet’s son, but a person in his own right entirely.
Still, I am compelled to write about those two male poets of an age, after reading an interview, in today’s Guardian, with Margaret MacMillan, Oxford don, historian, author of several big history books, the most recent being “The War That Ended Peace”. I met Margaret at a reception Canada House this year in London. She’s Canadian and is the head of an Oxford college. She is, to put it mildly, a brainiac. A soft-spoken, approachable and thoughtful scholar is she, and respectful… repeat, RESPECTFUL to her audience. 
Well reading her interview today I read that her breakthrough as a writer came when she was in her 50’s. And I thought about all the amazing women who began writing in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s, and I thought about those cheap remarks made for cheap laughs that O’Brien et al. dropped on us. I contend that for many, many women, it is not until their childbearing and childrearing years are done (even if women don’t have children their years and bodies are somewhat concerned with this, thus the wonderful phenomena of “post-menopausal zest”), and the bulk of their husband-sitting is done (i.e. anchoring the home while he makes his big career in some cases… it’s observed in some widows too, a surge of creativity and sparkle once their grieving is done), that there is little room in which the woman has space to write – literally and figuratively, most importantly, emotionally and psychologically. 
Many women do not have the confidence to write until much later, or in some cases, it is only later in life that they have the time to formulate what they need to say, and how they wish to say it. So to poke fun at new writers who are women in their 60’s and 70’s for example, is blatantly wrong. 
“A Room of One’s Own”, wrote Virginia Woolf, is what a woman writer needs. She adds too, that a personal income of approx. $50k is necessary. She also needs a partner who sees her work as work, and not a hobby, even if it doesn’t make the big $$$, and a partner who does not feel threatened by her success.
Well Mr. O’Brien, what I say a woman writer needs, is to have respect given to her for the wisdom of a woman’s life lived. A boy is encouraged to speak out. At 60 or 70, or 80, our elders lived through a time when this was discouraged, and they deserve to be listened to, whether in poetic form, or otherwise.
Here endeth the sermon.