I’m not sure if it was the recent Veteran’s Day and Armistice Day coverage, the last few books I read, or my new copy of Feminism A to Z, but I’ve been thinking about women’s roles and assumptions people make about them lately
In the mystery I finished reading a few weeks ago (which I’m leaving unnamed so I’m not spoiling the story for anyone), the criminal turned out to be a woman. The evidence pointed to the man, the men investigating the crime were confident it was the man, and it wasn’t until Our Girl made them look more closely that the woman behind the crimes was identified. When the investigator asked Our Girl how she knew, she answered:
“She was a woman. And she was in a subordinate position. Men don’t pay attention to women. They rarely wonder what women do, and they never wonder at all what they think. If you’re a secretary . . .when it was a choice between the two, everyone automatically assumed that the man was in charge. Was smarter, was the one who would be running a successful money-laundering scheme.”
Now there are generalizations there, but some truth as well. People make assumptions about other people all the time, both consciously and subconsciously. I remember a study I saw years ago where they showed the participants two pictures – a pretty, young, blond girl, and a an older, dark-haired man – and asked which of the two they would feel more comfortable hiring as a babysitter. The participants all pointed to the girl who, it turned out, was a notorious killer. So much for preconceived notions.
Getting back to the book above, the criminal almost got away with her crimes because, as a woman, she was somewhat invisible.
That kind of invisibility was a plus in the other book I finished a few days ago (which I’ll be Book-squeezing about in a later post). The book was set in Britain, just months after the end of World War I. In this story, Our Girl, like a number of other women, worked for the Secret Service during war. She was successful both because as a woman of her time she was somewhat invisible, but also because she was in a role one wouldn’t normally expect her to be in. In essence, people saw what they expect to see and when they saw her, they didn’t expect to see a spy, so they didn’t see one.
Naturally, thinking about female spies caused me to lose a good chunk of time searching away on the internet, where I read about women like Louise de Bettignies, Marthe Cnockaert, Gabrielle Petit, and Edith Cavell among others. Sadly, many of the women I read about were ultimately captured and executed, but they were able to provide vast amounts of critical intelligence to help turn the tide of the war.
Here in the present, closer to home, looking at our current political elections, women are shedding their cloaks of invisibility and taking center stage. I love the fact that the newly elected congressmen (and women) are in Washington this week attending Freshman Orientation, as if they’re all starting a new term at school. I can just picture their families dropping them off at the Capitol, with their backpacks and newly sharpened pencils; making them promise to call very week and keep out of trouble.
Although all the votes still have not been counted, and there are still some races that are undecided, this new freshman class contains a record number of women, including 29-year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman in American history to serve in Congress. Out of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, more than 100 of them are now held by women. That’s a big change from 30 years ago when there were just twelve women in Congress and politics was considered “men’s work” (as undoubtably, it still is to some).
According to post-election statistics, the majority of people voting in the last election were women, as were the majority of campaign workers, facts that some of those running for office did not take as seriously as they probably should have. Perhaps it will give them something to think about in their now-free-time as they begin looking for new jobs.
I’m my Regency romance – which I’m still trying to revise into something that won’t be relegated to the obscurity of a box under the bed for all eternity – I already had a female spy. I was thinking of her as a kind of Mata Hari type. She plays a minor role in the story but, after all of my recent research and reading, I’m thinking she could be a great catalyst for things to happen in the story.
And the best part? The rest of the cast will probably never see her coming.
So, have you been able to use preconceived notions, unconscious bias, or gender expectations to advantage in any of your stories? If not, have you read any good stories that did?