Friday, November 18, 2011

Women Poets, Part II: On Not Wanting to be Pigeonholed

I was somewhat reluctant to do all of the writing about female subjects that I have done/am doing recently because I very much don't want to get pigeonholed as a "girl Arabist."*

Sometimes I catch myself thinking that I should have a really compelling and well-thought-out argument for why I don't find gender to be an interesting or useful interpretive category. But that's just it. I don't. I don't have a good reason for Why not women's lit? because it's just not something I spend a huge amount of time thinking about. I'm not actively rejecting; I'm just not headed in that direction. And the fact is that I am simply not-thinking about something that my male colleagues who don't work on gender can and easily not-think about in a way that is defensible in the framework of our intellectual socialization as academics.

I know I'm likely (or perhaps simply liable, given the small number of readers here to begin with) to take flack for failing to challenge the notion of a "girl Arabist," for not insisting that girl Arabists can write about "serious" subjects such as Ibn Sina or al-Ghazali just as much or well as a, well, plain vanilla, unqualified-with-an-adjective-of-gender Arabist can. But the idea is there. For all the really talented women Arabists I have the great good fortune of knowing, we're still several decades behind the rest of the humanities in that the question of whether a woman can make a good Arabist is still an open one in the minds of many.  And for me, the way to handle it is not to do really bang-up scholarship making use of the tools of gender studies; it's to act, intellectually, like one of the guys. I don't want to fight the problem because the fight would not be intellectually satisfying or stimulating or, for me, productive in any way. I like the intellectual landscape in this respect, even if I have more to prove. I think I might even like it better because I have more to prove; even the littlest things will always be challenges, and even the smallest victories can't be taken for granted.  If I'm going to fight the intellectual establishment, it'll be over something else, like the field-wide bias toward the literature of the Eastern Mediterranean at the expense of that of the Western Med, in other words, something that really and immediately has an impact on my ability to do my work.

(Long after I wrote the preceding paragraph, but long before finishing the whole post, I found this blog post that I think sums things up nicely.)

So I've written now about Deborah and about the woman known in the scholarship as Mrs. Dunash; I am writing more about the latter figure, too. I don't think I've done it in a way that constitutes a gender-based analysis. In once case, I looked at prebiblical prophetic functions and in the other I'm writing an economic analysis of what is, in poetry, typically described as a sentimental gesture but which is, when described in Genizah letters, clearly an economic exchange. The fact that the subjects of these two studies are both female is a total coincidence. Or is it? Will I necessarily write differently about literature written by women and the historical issues that surround the question of women writers? Will I always find those texts more appealing even if they do not form the bulk of my work?

I can blithely go about my work writing or not about women in ways that have nothing to do with the fact of them being women, and then I'm suddenly forced to confront the fact that the scholarship refers to the only woman poet to write in Hebrew in the middle ages as "Mrs. Dunash." We don't have a name for her (although as I run out of ways to circumlocute the "Mrs. Dunash" terminology, I find myself wishing I could just call her Martha or something just for the sake of concision) and so any reference will always be as the wife of her husband, a famed grammarian and poet. This somehow sounds condescending. Why Mrs. Dunash and not Mrs. ben Labrat? In other words, if we're already using pieces of the Anglo nomenclature, why not go whole hog? It's a belittling nickname that to me sounds a lot like when folks (including a lot of people whose work I otherwise respect a tremendous amount) call Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson, the women who indirectly facilitated the discovery of Dunash's wife's poem, "the Giblews." It makes them a single entity when they weren't in any way and also, well, frankly, makes them sound like the bits of chicken carcass that you throw away before making soup. Even if I don't care about (or, more carefully put, even if I don't prioritize) issues relating to women, both those who have been dead for more than a millennium and those I might meet at a conference, they still do resonate with me.

I have written before about why I chose to blog under my own name; the fact that I do means you can see it at the right in the sidebar or below this post as part of the tagline. So you see that professionally, I use the initials of my first and middle names rather than my whole given name. The impetus behind that is a very simple one: There's another woman named Sarah J. Pearce who works in a field that's closely enough related to my own that I knew of her existence even as an undergraduate, and enough that a Brill representative once collapsed hers and my records without thinking that the range of books was odd for one scholar. (I got a phone call from Brill one afternoon, with the very hesitant representative wanting to know why the billing address for my recent order was in the US and the shipping address was in the UK, where my homophone is located.) And as much as gender wasn't central to making what was, in the end, a very practical decision, I mention it here because, particularly in a male-dominated field, I  rather like the idea of someone who doesn't know me or know of me being able to pick up my work and read it without knowing that it was written by a woman. I like being able to block out and deflect my sensitivities to women's issues when it serves me intellectually.

I am not a girl Arabist.

I know that this is an issue I will continue to think about and rethink over the course of my career. But for now, excuse me while I go write about philosophy. And some wars.

*My scholarly identity is actually a bit complicated. Beyond not wanting to play up the fact that I'm a woman or let that influence my scholarly approach, I have utterly given up on trying to decide what kind of -ist I am. I don't fit neatly into any of the categories, so I've all but given up on trying to assign myself a specific label tand have just decided to let my work speak for itself and for me.

Edited on 11/20/11 to include this link: Can Well-Behaved Women Make (Academic) History?

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