Personal Essay

On Being Female in a Man’s World

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Between the next poorly written self-published novel given to me to review and another foray into the under represented authors in speculative fiction, I decided to give my brain a break and go back to revisit an old favorite: Sir Terry Pratchett. If you don’t know Sir Terry’s work, I envy you the absolute joy of your first encounter with Discworld. If I might suggest you start with Going Postal, or  The Truth for your first adventure in Ankh Morkpork, closely followed by Monstrous Regiment.

I don’t recommend starting here because there is a lot to learn about this world before you are introduced to one of the pocket countries hubwards of the main city in their world, but once you have your turtle-legs under you, this is one of my favorites. The premise is simple enough: The protagonist, Polly, disguises herself as a guy to enter the army to find her brother, who enlisted a year previously. She is part of a country that is perpetually at war, and is not very good at it, hence the lack of eligible men in her town, and she needs to find her brother and get him back or when her father dies, their family inn will be lost since women can’t inherit. Women can’t do a lot of things in Borogravia, it seems, so off she goes as a young man to find her only chance at a decent future. After signing up for the war, one of her fellow recruits spots that she is female and offers her the advice of stuffing a pair of socks into her trousers to complete her disguise. Thus it becomes a running theme through the novel that Polly can’t tell whether her new-found bravery is coming from herself or her socks. In fact, I once did a book report in high school on this very subject wherein I chose a pair of socks to represent each of the characters in the book and gave a presentation describing exactly why each pair was appropriate.

The rest of this essay contains more than a few spoilers, so if you want to be surprised by the book, stop reading now, and come back to this after you have read the novel. It won’t take long, I’ll wait.

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Okay, good, you’re back. You’re a speedy reader! Anyway, one of the turning points–really, every turning point in the book–comes when we find out yet ANOTHER character is actually a female disguised as a male in the army. Eventually we find out that nearly 1/3 of high command is actually female, the sergeant in charge of Polly’s unit if female, and said sergeant has made it their mission over the course of their overly-long military career to spot women coming into the army and quietly suggest to some they’d be better off home, while refining and encouraging those who would be an asset. A good portion of the high command owes their position today to Sergeant Jackrum and his/her not-so-gentle hand. We find out about this absolute abundance of estrogen at the point in the novel that Polly and her fellow recruits are unmasked and facing retribution for being in actual-fact female and loudly saving Borogravia from certain defeat. Several things become clear over the course of the tribunal:

  1. Each of the women in the room (barring Polly’s platoon) had assumed they were the only female in the Army and were trying to make it on their own. A few of them had spotted the rare other, but they were so concerned about being seen as male that they often overlooked other women’s tells.
  2. It was okay to be a woman in the army so long as no one KNEW there was a woman in the army. If they had been willing to go back under as men, it would have been alright.
  3. They were expected to lookout solely for themselves, be grateful for a handout from high command, and go quietly back to living under the absurd rule of their dead god and all his insane rules and submit themselves to a man.

Needless to say, Polly and her crew were not too thrilled with any of this. They refused all of the handouts and insisted on remaining as open women in the Army. Granted, they were only allowed to do so because the ghost of their dead beloved ruler, the Duchess, demanded it as well, but they managed to get a truce in place and a new ruling system installed in the capital before Polly took her brother home to her family and went back to work in the tavern.

If this had been the end of the story, I would have enjoyed it, but it would not hold such a dear place in my heart. While Polly enjoys being home with her family, she also does not feel like she is done; she has tasted privilege beyond what she once knew and knows that she has the power to bring change to her country. So when rumors abound that their neighbor is invading, she dusts off her skirted Army uniform and begins the journey back to the capital in order to bring her kind of power and change to this new conflict. And on her way across the ferry, she notes two young men whom are headed to the Army to join up that she instantly identifies as being, in fact, female.

“Let’s have a look at you,” said Polly. “Chins up. Ah. Well done. Shame you didn’t practice walking in trousers and I notice you didn’t bring an extra pair of socks.”

They stared, mouths open.

“What are your names?” said Polly. “Your real names, please? Don’t looks so worried. You can tell me the truth. And don’t try cunning on me, because I was trained by Mister Fox.”

“Er…Rosemary,” one of them began.

“I’m Mary,” said the other. “I heard girls were joining, but everyone laughed, so I thought I’d better pretend to–”

“Oh, you can join as men if you want,” said Polly.

The girls looked at one another.

“You get better swearwords,” said Polly. “And the trousers are useful. But it’s your choice.”

“A choice?” said Rosemary.

“Certainly,” said Polly. She put a hand on a shoulder of each girl…and added: “You are my little lads–or not, as the case may be–and I will look after…you.”

For the first time, when I finished the novel, I actually feel like I understand what Sir Terry was saying, truly saying, about what it is like to be a woman in this world. Because that’s what Sir Terry does: he uses fantasy as a way to comment on our Western culture, and each novel focuses on and satirizes another aspect of our world. When I was a teenager, I caught all the commentary about war, and even some of the commentary about gender politics, but definitely not all of it. I didn’t have the life experience at the tender age of 17 to see much beyond the sock question and my own bemusement at girls who felt they couldn’t be outspoken and brave without the addition of socks. I certainly never felt like I needed a pair, but then again I was raised without a lot of the same gender expectations a lot of my peers suffered under. I was a Girl Scout, and a leader, and outdoorsy, and intellectual by my nature, and my parents encouraged that, so as a teenager I found the gender politics of Monstrous Regiment to be more humorous than hateful. But I loved the book and I have carried it with me through the 7 moves since then, rereading it occasionally.

Before I move too far into the commentary, I do want to take a moment to acknowledge that while the book does use cross-dressing as the physical metaphor for this commentary, Sir Terry does address trans and gender-fluid issues in other ways in this and his other books and his usage of the physical presentation of gender is used here as a simplification of the issue in pursuit of the message and not a commentary on actual transgender issues. In fact there are several oblique references to a general who is quite probably either gender-fluid or trans (mtf) and is readily accepted by his peers.

But onwards.

I think the last time I read this book was several years previous, and since then I have become much more aware of the gender disparity in our country. I have watched women get passed over for promotion, and I have fought for better parity in pay. I have read study after study talking about the way in which women minimize themselves in the workforce so as to not be perceived as a threat, to be accepted and not dismissed as a bitch or worse. The same tactics that men use and are praised for, women are fired or reprimanded for. My mother, a woman who broke into an all-male industry right out of college, taught me several skills to succeed in life and work: how to read upside down so you can see what is on your boss’s desk; how to modulate tone of voice so people don’t have a negative reaction to what you have to say; how to state your opinions clearly and stand up for what you know is the right course of action. And somewhere in-between her lessons, school, and the world, I learned a different set of lessons: how to qualify what I am saying so people are more willing to listen; how to minimize confrontation so I am not at risk for retaliation; how to play the dumb blonde the better to steer interactions. How to minimize me in order to not be a threat. How to unruffle feathers in the work place by self-deprecation and demurring.

I didn’t even realize I had picked up most of these coping skills until people started to point them out. The first major realization came when my husband (then friend) pointed out that I used a lot of qualifiers in my writing, “just” and “so” and other verbal ticks that robbed by writing of its power and voice in an effort of minimize my opinions. It is still something I fight today, and he definitely doesn’t let me get away with, ever. Then I noticed that the way I interact with my coworkers included a lot of self-deprecation, happily shouldering non-existent blame to keep feathers unruffled. I move aside, physically and emotionally, in order to yield space to just about everybody, but when you keep doing that, you’re not left with any space for yourself. And so, I have spent a lot of the last few years opening back up, catching myself before I bow and scrape and diminish my self, and trying to help as many women as I can find their own feet, their own voice, and their own space in this male dominated world.

And I think that’s why this book hit me so hard this time. I read Polly’s last words and I started to cry. Jackrum’s little lads were given two choices at the beginning of the book: stay in their lives as women and diminish themselves every hour of over day to make more room in their world for the men who already had more than enough, or give up their femininity and become a man to combat it. I see women make that choice every day, and not in the literal transgender sense, but in the emotional and behavioral sense. They either chose to develop the same coping mechanisms I was talking about above in order to not crowd the boys, or they give up on being perceived as women and become just “one of the boys” in their company, metaphorically farting, burping, and taking up all the air in the room. Polly and Jade and Maladicta and Betty chose a third option: being women and not giving ground. They found strength in their femininity, they did not let the men nor the women who had become men nor the diminished women dictate what they were or how they could or should act. Instead they listened to their hearts and did what made them whole. They made their own space in the world and will not give it up for anything.

At the end of the novel, when Polly has finally come into her own and is on her way back into the fray, embracing her skirts, she is presented with the picture of her younger self, two young girls with the same two choices she was given: diminish or become masculine. She rejects both of these, neither telling the girls to go home or that they have to stuff a pair of socks in their trousers. First and foremost, she tells them they do actually have a choice, and there is nothing wrong with the choice they have made thus far, but there was a third option they were not aware of. No one ever tells girls there is a third option, to be female and strong. And Polly will help them do it.

It was weird to finally be able to articulate why this book meant so much to me growing up. Why all of Sir Terry’s books did. There were messages in them I didn’t even know I was receiving, wasn’t aware I needed. This was a message I needed to hear now, more than ever, and I finally had the knowledge and the cultural vocabulary to be able to understand what I had only brushed the surface of previously. It left me oddly satisfied and tearful, and with the certain knowledge that I want to be a Polly in this world. I already do my best to inhabit my corner fully, without minimization, without giving ground to those who demand it for no other reason than that they don’t think I need it. But more than that, I need to be a guide to other women, a beacon to young girls, saying, yes, the world has offered you two ways of being, and if you choose to follow either of those, that is your prerogative. But if you look over here, you can be female and strong, femme and strong, trans and strong, she or they and strong, if you want. And no matter what route you choose, I will be there for you, supporting you, helping you to the best of my ability because that is what women should do. We should build each other up, hold strong against those who would tear us down. Sir Terry understood the grace and power of being feminine and strong and I wish I could thank him for his clarity and wisdom, but I definitely know he would be happy to hear there was another Polly, thanks to him.