A little over 14 years ago, I sat on a bench in a London train station with my then boyfriend’s sister waiting for a train to take us into London and Gigantic Night at The Marquee. She was relating a bit about her break up with her boyfriend, Giles. I had met Giles. During my two-week visit to London in August 1993, he’d come over and sat in an armchair at my boyfriends’ parents’ and yammered on about his boss. His litany of complaints seemed endless and in addition to an unfortunate name and a gap in his front teeth, he earned twat status by attributing his boss’s seeming innumerable faults to her being female. It never occurred to him (or my ex-boyfriend’s sister and mother, for that matter) that her X chromosome might not have anything to do with her ability to manage and do a competent job. Six months later as I sat in the dark, chill of an August evening, I told her that I had never liked Giles and my reason being that he bashed women. “I didn’t know you were a feminist!” she gasped with incredulity.
I had never been called a feminist before and under such circumstances, almost an accusation, almost an epithet, I found it somewhat amusing that the belief that men and women were equal was so shocking to a young English woman. I shouldn’t have been all that surprised as her brother and I had had more than one fight about such issues, once my yelling, “I am your equal!”
It was only in England, surrounded by the English, that I really was aware of my feminism. I think as a Third Wave Feminist, I take for granted that “We’ve come a long way, baby!” It has recently flared up with Second Wavers tut-tutting Third Wavers for choosing to be stay-at-home-moms and illustrated in Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten-Year Nap.
I did not want an engagement ring when I got engaged, believing that if I were to get one, my soon-to-be would, too. If not, then we both wouldn’t. I didn’t change my last name. I had heard the argument before— women who would rather have their husband’s name than their father’s. But my father’s name is Gary…I believe a woman should live on her own before she marries and not go from her father’s house to her husband’s house, but from her house to their house. I have known far too many women who were never independent. Who never had bills in their name solely, never signed a lease in their name solely, who had the moving van back up to a parents’ house to load and back up to a spouse’s place to unload. Only rarely have I known women who sought that independence before marriage. Hi, my name is Sabra. I am a Feminist.
Why then, do I have male protagonists? My first novel— the utterly and completely and embarrassing defunct novel— had a man at its center. My work-in-progress novel also has a male protagonist. I have a penchant for alliterative titles— Lost in London, A Measure of Memory, and my third novel (stewing and brewing as I type) also has an alliterative title. I also have a predilection for male main characters. Even the third novel still brewing and stewing, began with the idea of a male main character.
My novels always begin with creative sparks that come from dreams. And I am three for three for those being based around men. Men with the conflict, men with the problem, men with the issue that expands out to tens of thousands of words and character nuances so plentiful they seem nearly real.
The truth is, I understand men. I understand them better than women, at least, most women.
I don’t understand the destructive competitive streak I have seen from women. When an old friend found out I was having twins, she point blank said to me, “You’ve beaten me with one pregnancy.” She had one child; I had two. A year later, when we found out we were both pregnant and I was due a month before her, she was highly perturbed that I would still be beating her. I wondered if she kept a tally sheet of the number of children she had and the number her friends had and constantly compared. It’s not a competition. I don’t care if your child was potty trained at 24 months, why do you care how many words my one year old knows? It’s not a competition. I don’t care if you got your M.A. and/or M.F.A. in English and I had waffled about it and then decided not to do it. It floated your boat and not mine. It’s not a competition.
I don’t understand it when women feel passionately about something that their passion is interpreted as an automatic negation of another’s woman’s beliefs and passion. So what if I don’t believe in a lot of birth interventions and you had a C-section? So what if I don’t think it’s good idea to start trying to have a family when you’re past 30? So what if we both express that a meeting is wasting our time and I state I have a career that needs attention? Does this mean I judge you for having a C-section, starting procreating at 33, or that I assume you don’t have a career, too? No. Don’t take it as such. We all have individual needs and passions, beliefs and circumstances, and they color every choice we make. That I chose one thing based on my personal reasons, doesn’t mean, has never meant that your different choice based on your personal reasons is wrong or bad. It worked for you, but wouldn’t have worked for me. So what.
I don’t understand it when women use sex to have power over men. The woman who wanted a cat, wanted a cat, wanted a cat and the husband who said no, no, no. Then the wife gives the husband special attention in the Bernie Mac sense and the woman gets the cat. She names it B.J. Or the young couple who haven’t had sex in many months because there’s underlying tension, unresolved issues, arguments that never erupt out in the open. And the husband buys diamond jewelry for his wife “just because” and their celibacy ends. When did this sort of prostitution develop between the couple? Why does it continue?
As a Feminist, I’m afraid of writing a female protagonist. Will she use sex to get diamond jewelry or baby kittens? Will she feel affronted when someone states her beliefs about breastfeeding and this young mother has collapsed milk ducts? Will she try to compete with other women, ticking off invisible markers of accomplishment, handsomeness of husbands, accomplishments of children, number and quality of letters behind one’s name? If I write about these type of women, am I doing my gender a disservice, exposing what I don’t understand about my fellow women, judging them for being competitive, insecure, and using sex as a weapon? And if I avoid these issues, plunge deep into a novel with a female protagonist, am I copping out? Or if I model this character’s femininity on my own, how much I am alienating women, because I felt my brand of femaleness was always rare, misunderstood, and disliked? That I have felt pushed further and further into the outer on fringes of my gender? So much so that it was easier to turn away and toward men who understood me better? Will the depth and breadth of character I accomplished with David from Lost in London and Leo from A Measure of Memory fail me with Rowena from (alliterative undisclosed next novel title)?
I had imagined and planned for yet another male protagonist, but it was in seeing Becoming Jane that I considered changing my mind. The risks Jane Austen took, the trail she blazed, the greatness she achieved when she had many, many despites stacked up in front of her. I know I’ll never be a Chick Lit writer and I highly doubt I’ll ever fit into Women’s Fiction. I want people to read A Measure of Memory and suspect am I a man I wrote Leo so well. But I also want them to read about Rowena and know I am a woman.