This was originally published on another blog on July 27, 2011, but is no longer available online, so I’ve republished it for Visitant.
“Who teaches us to be human?” asked Ursula Le Guin, the famed feminist speculative fiction author. “What to fear? What to love? Children learn genderless lessons from women, gendered from men. Fathers teach children sex roles: How to be manly and woman-like. Social and moral change comes from women teaching their children to adapt.”
The theme of the 2010 Winter Fishtrap Gathering was “Learning from Women.” Fishtrap is a nonprofit organization in northeastern Oregon dedicated to “Writing and the West.” The weekend winter gatherings in February are no longer available, but each year, Fishtrap holds a weeklong summer gathering in July below the magnificent mountains in the small town of Joseph. Although she is a usual participant at the summer gatherings, this was Le Guin’s first winter gathering.
The weekend schedule was a mix of readings and lectures from three guests of honor (Ursula Le Guin, Molly Gloss, and Tony Vogt) with a few writing workshops and social time for writers to share their work, discuss, and network. Workshops asked participants to list all the women they had learned from in their lives, mothers, sisters, other family members, friends, teachers, neighbors, and describe the specific lessons, both beneficial and detrimental, that were passed on to them.
At 80 years old, Ursula Le Guin had developed enviable poise and confidence, despite being not much taller than the podium by the huge stone fireplace at the Wallowa Lake Lodge. She was a physical contrast to the other female guest of honor, Molly Gloss. Gloss, the author of several novels featuring pioneering women, does not hide her significant stature under poor posture. They are opposing examples of boldness in an older woman’s body. Le Guin and Gloss first met decades ago when Molly was a student in Ursula’s writing workshop. The third guest of honor was Tony Vogt, a bearded, longhaired professor of philosophy and sociology at Oregon Statue University.
Vogt noted the scarcity of male participants, especially young male participants, probably due to the subject. Men may have social obstacles learning from women or they may already think they have learned enough. In a patriarchal society, says Vogt, “it is easier for men to identify with alpha males (politicians, sports heroes, etc.) than the women in their lives who they have more in common with.” Men may not able to acknowledge their collective cultural privilege because they do not feel like they have individual power. These men feel the need to learn from women does not pertain to them.
There is a “historical invisibility” of women. Tony Vogt is an activist and knowledgeable about the history of political action. Women are “sensitive to the abuses of hierarchy” and the value of social skills, but men get marked as powerful, dramatic leaders. Women have pivotal roles in community and political organizing, but the media tells big public stories without women, or with men as the leaders and women as the workers. Women their actions are notably invisible in Western fiction and history.
In the “wild” West, men’s story is the public story and women’s story is the private story. The stories that get told are the myths of men fighting and forging ahead into dangerous new frontiers. The hidden stories are tales of family tragedies and triumphs.
Molly Gloss and Ursula Le Guin both tie their work into the Western genre. Gloss’s Jump-Off Creek is the story of a single, homesteading woman in Oregon. Science fiction novels, Le Guin’s specialty, have been referred to as “Space Westerns” with exploration in an unknown territory and the emergence of adventurous, often violent, heroes. Although she is known for writing feminist Westerns, Gloss’s recent novel, The Dazzle of Day, is science fiction about a society facing collapse attempting to flee the ruins of Earth.
Molly Gloss said she wrote Jump-Off Creek because she couldn’t a book like it in the library. There needed to be a Western novel about a woman who came to the West by her own means. Men tame animals, savages, and outlaws. Women are too often described as reluctant, dependent pioneers, while men are the heroes and plot movers. Exactly who was the woman who would have chosen a single homesteader life? Gloss researched public records and discovered that one out of five homestead claims were filed by women. Private writings and memoirs revealed that the story of women in the West was a communal story. The brave, lonesome man heading out to stake his claim in the American Dream is a lie. Homesteaders formed communities and success was a group effort. Men and women worked together. Enormous groups and classes of pioneering women have been overlooked. They weren’t just covered wagon wives, schoolmarms, saloon women, and victims of frontier violence. Usually, they lived their lives without fear of attack and did not need to be rescued by gun slinging cowboys.
Other than the Indian squaw, the female archetypes of Westerns are white. The reality of the West is a lot more socially, economically, and racially diverse than its myth. Along with the white ranch women, there were Spanish speaking women, and black women, Asian concubines, lesbians, slaves, laundresses, postmistresses, and freight haulers. Despite the wide range of experiences, ideas, and personal histories of the Fishtrap guests, the group demographics mirrored the historical invisibility in the Western public story. There were few people of color and no one who identified as transgendered.
Le Guin began her speculative fiction career writing with male protagonists because there didn’t seem to be an audience for female heroes. After her successes with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), she began to wonder why she wrote books about men. Readers, editors, and publishers expected men as the main characters. “What right did they have to force me to be a transvestite?” Le Guin demanded. She first introduced a female protagonist for the Earthsea Quartet in The Tombs of Atuan in 1971, but not without significant supporting help from the male Earthsea protagonist. Women and women’s issues finally take control in the fourth novel, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, published in 1990. What often strikes readers in Tehanu is an argument that women gain power from their primal and regressive nature, lamented Le Guin. This is what masculinism wants women to say about themselves. However, the introspective and intrepid Tehanu protagonists exemplify how women have an equal right to reason and men have an equal right to the body and intuition.
As Molly Gloss said, the Western myth is who we are as Americans. It’s a legend of lone riders, conquest, going alone, and independence. We die with our boots on, rootless, and solitary. The archetype of the cowboy is not in decline, just look at the news or SUV ads. Look at urban cops or outer space vigilantes. The cowboy sacrifices family and community for transience and violence. Armed men solve problems. In the Western plots, a woman’s role was to first object to violence then realize that man is right and fall into his arms. Molly deeply remembers reading the cowboy novel Shane when she was 16. The stoic hero became her model for the ideal man. As a society, “we’re in love with Shane, but he’s the guy our mothers warned us about.” Now she’s trying to create a new mythology and persuade Shane that the cowboy life doesn’t have to be so bloody and lonesome. It’s not a matter of women trying to domesticate men and get them to settle down. A good Western, for men and women, needs adventure and sensibility.
It’s also not a matter of women changing themselves to fit fictitious male standards. Just strapping guns on a woman doesn’t count, Gloss said. Are women supposed to be the upholders of restrictive “family values,” wondered Le Guin, or is their teaching subversive?
Western and science fiction enjoy an enormous ability to change and adapt. Both involve the exploration of unknown frontiers, meeting unfamiliar communities, and surviving unusual hardships. Our protagonists could learn from their new situations rather than trying to control them. Heroes should question gender roles and resolve less through violence. Le Guin urged the Fishtrap writers to change the use of language. Move away from speaking and writing in a way that champions violence. Rather than struggle against, work through. Don’t conquer, fix. Avoid fighting against, beating, defeating, attacking, or combating. Divert, revise, adjust, alter, and transform.