The Voices of Women

The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade

Noctuary Press, 2019

Paperback, 270 pp., $16.00


Cover of The Unrhymables by Julie Marie Wade and Denise Duhamel.


The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose brings together the voices of poets Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade whose harmonizing take the reader across a spectrum of topics—marriage, divorce, body image, motherhood, queerness, and womanhood.  Duhamel and Wade’s use of the lyric essay format, propelling the reader by associative leaps and thematic recurrence rather than causal narratives, allows them to zoom in on individual words and concepts in order to peel back their associations layer by layer.  This elasticity of the conversation between the two women pulls the reader into the conversation with them in a unique way.  The authors are writing from different perspectives, Duhamel almost a generation apart in age from Wade, yet their assemblage of experience blends in such a way that it becomes a kind of Everywoman experience. The sisterhood cadence throughout is undeniable and takes us places we might not expect to go.  One can imagine sitting on a sofa, late into the night, listening to an intimate conversation with two women as they compare their lives’ experiences and explore the challenges of womanhood from a generational standpoint—this is the intrinsic quality of The Unrhymables.


The book is constructed with thirteen thematically linked essays created by micro-memoirs, some of which are sub-titled, from both Duhamel and Wade, moving the conversation back and forth in a fluid motion within each essay. The most challenging aspect for the reader, but evidence of a discernible synergy between the two authors, is the fact that their voices are indistinguishable at times—only separated by inferences to their sexual orientation, coming of age experiences, and their childhood—which are filled with societal and cultural references that invariably reveal the particular author. In the essay “Pink,” Wade learns about the Nazi downward facing “pink triangle” used to identify homosexual Jews, and Duhamel responds with her experiences in New York City during the AIDS crisis and how the Silence=Death slogan’s logo “turned that pink triangle right-side-up.”  Both authors experience the same kind of emotions, only years apart in different contexts.  This kind of navigational point occurs frequently throughout the prose and directs the conversations.  Should the reader not know some of the more intimate details of the authors’ lives, nor have read other works by Duhamel and Wade, one could conceivably read the text without knowing exactly which one is speaking.


However, the hybrid nature of this collection is what takes The Unrhymables to new heights. From writing about colors—“White,” “Pink,” “Red,” “Blue,” “Green,” and “Black”—and exploring their personal, historical, and cultural associations, to constructing a Scrabble edition including tandem essays “N1E1A 1R1  and  “E1 R1 A1 S1,”  both of which deal with homosexual acceptance in society, Duhamel and Wade take every opportunity to speak through other poets and writers or mention their work.  In fact, the book has no less than 188 references.  In an especially powerful and poignant moment, Wade recites Orlando poet Stephen Mills’s poem “The History of Blood” to weave into the narrative her fears about gay violence, “Another gay boy got bashed in Miami this week, nearly beaten / to death on his way home from a club. The man’s fist / smashed the boy’s glittered face, like my glittered face dancing / at the gay bar every weekend.”


The essay “S1A1L1T1” sings with Wade’s inattentional-blindness, referencing the poet Elizabeth Bishop without explanation to the audience. The reference is subtle to an average reader—probably missed by most—but familiar to poetry readers. Wade points out in the opening lines of the essay, “If this were chess, I’d choose the bishop and call her Elizabeth. I’d praise her for her smooth slants, her incomparable zigs and zags—never straightforward, never straight back. ‘Elizabeth is a queen’s name’ someone would say. Only poets would understand.”  She follows this with “For years I read ‘In the Waiting Room’ in waiting rooms.” Then, a paragraph later, she does it again as she talks about ordering an omelet for breakfast while in Colorado and how she is chastised by her order-taker for expecting the waitress to associate a Denver omelet with a Western omelet, “But when the fluffed eggs appeared, folded sideways and smothered with sharp cheese, it was ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’—another Bishop poem.” All of this to explain the “extra-textual juxtaposition” of bringing art and life together in a literal fashion. It’s this sideways slide found in Wade’s work that makes her such a joy to read.


Nonfiction prose is a departure from Duhamel’s award-winning poetry, but experimentation within her work is not. She is known for playing with pantoums, villanelles, and forms of her own invention such as “porn poetry.” And it’s not the first time she has paid homage to her women forebearers or engaged with feminism in her work. Readers will not find the whimsical poet of “Rated R” in the pages of this collection, but they will find Duhamel’s candid approach as she brings to life the times in our history when our mothers and grandmothers faced much tougher times in terms of equality, racism, and sexism. On occasion, the poet does emerge and takes the reader on a delicious ride, as in “Kaboom,” the sub-titled essay within “Word Problems,” where she writes about wonky words such as boondoggle and conundrum. She even thanks Edgar Allen Poe for tintinnabulation. Readers will appreciate her simple and subversive delivery as she tackles difficult subjects, bringing wisdom to the page. Her details of the sixties and seventies, where many of her experiences resonate with an older generation of readers, also offer deep insight as her gaze is juxtaposed against Wade’s younger perspective.


The final culmination of the dual voices—and the voices even beyond their own two—comes in a glossary at the end of the book akin to Susan Bee and Johanna Drucker’s Fabulas Feminae; Duhamel and Wade’s version includes more than a hundred women and girls from the authors’ personal lives as well as public figures, from past and present, literary figures, and fictional characters. It’s really an homage to the wonderful mixture of women—the scholars, the feminists, the divas, the poets, the victims, the comedians, the fashionistas, the heroines, the goddesses, the icons, the red-heads, the singers, the writers, the sirens, the childhood friends, the movie stars, the classmates, and yes, even the grandmas—who inspired or influenced Duhamel and Wade specifically, but all of us really, in some way.


The book feels like a fresh approach to collaboration. While the authors each take turns giving their thoughts on the same subjects, I didn’t find an established order as I read. In other words, I might read two essays written by Duhamel, followed by one of Wade’s. As in a conversation, one person might have more to say than the other, and this is what makes their collaboration so fluid and natural. By placing their voices side by side, they allow the reader to gain insight into what has or hasn’t changed from one generation to the next. More importantly, I believe the prose embodies the voices of all women, past and present, as influencers of Duhamel and Wade.


After reading The Unrhymables, I have to ponder the idea of the collaboration as a hybrid in addition to the body of work. It’s that sideways slide again: the idea of the offspring from two varieties, composed of different elements, produced through human manipulation for a specific genetic characteristic. The result is a consonant cluster of sorts—Dwade, I call iteach of their notes produced simultaneously to create a particularly savory tone.


Good Dog, Bad Girl

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne

Oxford University Press, 2017/2019

Hardcover/Paperback, 368 pp., $27.95/$14.95


Cover of Kate Manne's Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.


“He is like a dog that barks around women,” my (male) colleague told me. He was referring to the irrational and apparently unaccountable behavior of our male, academic-department head, who had responded with strange aggression to some suggestions I had made at a department meeting. My colleague explained, plainly, that the aggressiveness I had witnessed—that I had withstood—was not atypical; other women had received similar treatment. But in his view, this “barking” at women was to be dismissed as a basically harmless peculiarity. To extend his analogy, the department head (an academic star) was a good, beloved, and valued dog, though a bit snappish, and just as you might keep small children away from a snappish dog, it was best to keep women colleagues away from him. Another male colleague offered a different sort of explanation: the barking department head was troubled by women because he was raised by a dominant mother, a professional woman, and this had somehow messed him up. More than one male colleague advised me to “soften” my speech, to be more casual and “less professional” in my email correspondence, not to “brag” about my publications, and not to act like I deserved the successes I had in fact achieved, lest I come across as uppity. (It is not incidental to observe here that analytic philosophers, my professional cohort, do not succeed by being soft, imprecise, modest, or deferential.)


It will be helpful to summarize and separate the components of the above incident like the analytical philosopher I am. According to my male colleagues, then,

1) I had been treated unprofessionally because I was a woman;

2) my mistreatment was due entirely to the personal idiosyncrasy of one man, the proverbial “bad apple” or, here, barking dog;

3) his difficulty with women was ultimately the fault of a woman, his mother;

4) the best response was for me to steer clear of him;

5) and insofar as I had to interact with him, I should present myself in ways that expressed feminine subservience even at the expense of giving the impression of lesser competence or attainment.


Thus, the whole incident could be characterized as an unfortunate interpersonal problem, and it was incumbent upon me to change in order to avoid future unpleasantness.


There are two remarkable facets to this small story (more on its smallness later). The first is that my colleagues were able to discern that I had been treated unprofessionally because I was a woman. So often, even this fact remains out of focus or inaccessible. And, indeed, as I continued to work among these men for many years, during which time various forms of hostility, exclusion, silencing, and devaluation multiplied, the idea that this was a pattern of mistreatment based on gender became less and less accessible to my colleagues. I also will return to this point later.


The second remarkable facet of this story is, paradoxically, just how unremarkable it is: Such experiences of misogyny are so commonplace that they are often taken to be normal operating procedure—just, you know, the way it is. It barely rises to the level of consideration. My story could be any woman’s story. Shrug.


It is the project of Kate Manne’s incisive book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny to get past that shrug. Chapter by chapter, she offers a compelling analysis of the concept of misogyny and its workings in Anglo-American society. This analytical work is conceptually connected to respected, mainline arguments in moral philosophy not known for addressing gender. Thus, one of Manne’s achievements is almost a side-effect: her work breathes new life and new potential into an area of philosophy that too often leads to dead-end abstractions. Yet, Manne’s style is open to readers completely unfamiliar with contemporary philosophical discourse. Though there are a few passages that may feel prickly to such readers, it would be a shame if that were a deterrent. Manne vigorously employs the first-person (often considered out-of-line in analytic philosophy) and humor, giving the book a sense of personality and wit in addition to intellect. Importantly, her analysis of misogyny is accompanied by compelling examples of national and international significance. She shares research and insights regarding the misogyny directed at political figures, including Hillary Clinton and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She examines the disputed misogyny of the 2014 killing spree undertaken by Elliot Rodger at the University of California Santa Barbara in Isla Vista, California. She dissects the speech of conservative radio rabble-rouser Rush Limbaugh. She scrutinizes the Gamergate imbroglio, in which a female video game creator was subject to online abuse, doxing, and death threats. She probes the terrible effect of threatened masculinity in the violence of family annihilators (men who kill their wives and children rather than allow them to witness their own bankruptcy or social demise). She offers examples drawn from the headlines of domestic violence and police brutality against black women. She also uses fictional examples (including Gone Girl, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the TV adaptation of Fargo) to highlight cultural tropes and illustrate particular concepts. With so many points of application, Manne’s philosophical analysis never detaches from the real world; on every page, her analysis remains relevant and accessible to readers outside academic philosophy. In fact, Manne adduces so much evidence to support her analysis that the text risks subjecting the reader to emotional fatigue because misogyny is everywhere, and it’s worse than you think.


I imagine that some readers may feel overwhelmed by all the bad news, by the litany of ways in which women are routinely harmed, physically and sexually assaulted or killed, discredited, denounced, and defamed. (Some of Rebecca Solnit’s writing in The Mother of All Questions and Men Explain Things to Me is similarly freighted by the evidence of misogyny’s ubiquity.)  It is hard to read about these facts without feeling your stomach tighten into a knot. But Manne’s intelligence, clarity, and courage come through with such force that I found the reading exhilarating, and I suspect that many readers, if they venture into a book of (feminist) philosophy, will likewise feel that they have found a source of light and intellectual leadership. With Manne’s insights in hand, our pervasively gendered experience of the world makes more sense. And with so much confusion in public discourse, a book of philosophy that makes more sense of any aspect of social life provides a balm.


In case “logic” conjures up painful memories of college exams, it may be a welcome preventative to know that Manne’s subtitle The Logic of Misogyny refers to a cultural logic—a set of interlocking social phenomena that function to sustain certain social institutions, norms, and roles. A cultural logic is not a rational system, nor a structure designed to achieve certain ends, nor a deliberate policy enacted by those with authority (though some such ends and policies may in fact be fabricated in order to sustain the cultural logic). Rather, a cultural logic captures something about the kinds of attitudes, expectations, and norms that govern our social interactions even when we are not aware of them and which allow us to interpret the behaviors and events of social life. Thus, a logic of misogyny must take us beyond what Manne calls the “naïve conception,” according to which misogyny is “primarily a property of individual agents (typically, although not necessarily, men) who are prone to feel hatred, hostility, or other similar emotions toward any and every woman, or at least women generally, simply because they are women.” Misogyny, on her analysis, is not reducible to the feelings or attitudes of individuals.


To see why this might be important, let’s return to my story, summarized in five points above. As I’ve said, it is remarkable that something like misogyny was volunteered by my male colleagues as an explanation for the department head’s behavior. They could see that gender was a salient factor. That takes us as far as (1). But in order for the charge of misogyny to stick, according to the naïve conception, we would have to be able to show that the department head had feelings of hatred or hostility toward me. Support for (2)—the idea that this misogyny rests in the individual’s psyche alone, that he is the bad apple in an otherwise non-misogynist social environment—would come in the form of psychological or biographical facts about this particular man. That might explain why one colleague resorted to (3) as evidence: there must be some personal, psychological explanation for his bad reaction to women, and perhaps it could be found in his relationship to his mother.  But the idea that the department head felt hatred or hostility toward me struck even me, the target of his bad behavior, as psychologically unrealistic. We simply had not had enough interaction (and none outside of the workplace) to engender strong feelings of any kind toward me. His barking wasn’t hatred per se.


To make matters even more challenging, in order to make the charge of misogyny stick—and I’m talking about getting it to stick as a matter of everyday explanation, not as a legal finding—we would have to be able to show that such feelings of hatred were directed at me simply because I am a woman, which would seem to imply that he would have such feelings of hatred toward all other women, or at least toward all those with whom he interacted, simply because they are women—and he did not. In fact, he seemed to express great affection for his wife and for at least one woman colleague. So, even though (2) casts the department head as a “barking dog,” who reacts with hostility to women, the naïve conception of misogyny would spare him the label misogynist. He didn’t hate me, let alone all women.


Since reacting so negatively to (some) women, on account of their being women, is plainly misogynist, the naïve conception of misogyny cannot be adequate. It also seems implausible on the face of it that any man could harbor feelings of hatred toward all women: it would be too exhausting for one thing, since half the human population is female. And even the most perverse psychopaths generally retain love for at least one woman, often their mothers. It looks like the naïve conception sets a standard for misogyny that has no real-life exemplars. Manne argues that we need to reconceptualize what misogyny is in order to be able to see it in operation. And we need to be able to see it in operation because it has tremendous explanatory value.


Manne argues persuasively that misogyny “should be understood as the ‘law enforcement’ branch of a patriarchal order, which has the overall function of policing and enforcing its governing ideology.” Misogyny can be recognized not by peering into the hidden depths of the individual psyches of men or probing their personal life histories for clues that would underpin a conscious or unconscious hatred of women, but by examining the kinds of hostility faced by women and girls in particular social environments. Attention shifts from the psyche of the alleged misogynist to the effects of certain behaviors on the women and girls who are the targets of misogyny. This shift allows that both men and women can perpetrate misogynist hostility and that misogyny is sustained by attitudes that extend well beyond hatred.


The logic here is actually pretty straightforward: The patriarchal order is sustained by an ideology of gender norms that mandates particular roles and social functions for men and different ones for women. Misogyny surfaces when women attempt to step outside of their appointed roles and functions in the patriarchal order. Manne argues that women who veer from the normative gender roles will be subject to “punitive, deterrent, or warning” measures that constitute misogyny’s mechanisms for keeping women in their place. Manne remarks on the varieties of misogynist hostility, which include “infantilizing and belittling” as well as “ridiculing, humiliating, mocking, slurring, vilifying, demonizing, as well as sexualizing, or alternatively desexualizing, silencing, shunning, shaming, blaming, patronizing, condescending,” and threatening, and violence. The particular tactics that comprise misogyny will vary with the circumstances, and often enough, multiple tactics will be deployed, especially if the targeted woman or girl does not quickly or readily step back into line and conform to her appointed gender role. Accordingly, the department head’s “barking” could be characterized as an attempt to humiliate or silence me precisely because my professional competence and assertiveness seemed threatening. Women colleagues can be tolerated, even welcomed, so long as they behave in ways that affirm masculine prerogatives to succeed and to lead.


Manne elaborates on the relative positions of men and women in our patriarchal society. Patriarchy, she argues, consists in the “uneven, gendered economy of giving and taking moral-cum-social goods and services.” Roughly, in this gendered economy, women owe (men) emotional and social labor, reproductive service, domestic service, sexual access, affection, love, and respect. Much of what women can provide are genuinely valuable social goods: it really is good to give and to receive love and respect, for example. But if women owe men these goods, then men must be entitled to them, and women who refuse to provide them will be the targets of misogynist attack. To take one of Manne’s most stark examples, Elliot Rodger decided to kill sorority women at UCSB, women with whom he had never even spoken, because he believed he was owed their sexual and romantic attention and had not gotten it. The same misogynist logic inspires the men who call themselves “involuntary celibates” and who see Rodger as a hero. Less gruesome examples of this logic abound. Women who do not volunteer to perform kinds of service traditionally associated with feminine roles—social planning, catering, making coffee, cleaning up, mentoring students—may be deemed uncooperative and receive lower job-performance evaluations, even as their male colleagues who likewise decline to volunteer for such tasks see no negative impact on their evaluations.


Men’s social goods consist in such things as “leadership, authority, influence, money, and other forms of power, as well as social status, prestige, [and] rank.” As Manne observes, the masculine goods tend to be in limited supply and acquired through competition. Women who attempt to partake of these masculine-coded goods constitute threats to the gendered order and will be subject, again, to misogynist backlash. Likewise, for women who challenge particular men’s claims to power, status, or authority. These challenges may be informal and low-stakes—such as questioning a boss’s decision or even just entering a conversation as if one were a peer—or very formal with high-stakes, such as a bid for the presidency. Patriarchy divvies up the social goods along gendered lines. Misogyny is the response when women refuse to give what’s expected of them or break rank and try to get what they are not culturally entitled to have.


Manne’s account of misogyny is superior to the naïve conception for several reasons. It avoids the need to scrutinize a man’s psyche; instead we can look to how a person’s behavior functions to keep women in their place in a social environment. It also allows us to look beyond a single emotional or motivational state, hatred, to acknowledge that misogyny wears many guises and that what it looks like will depend upon the specific gender norms in play in a particular social environment. Manne’s account explains why some women will be targeted (they step out of line) while others will be spared or even rewarded (they conform to the relevant gender norms). Further, Manne’s account allows us to see how misogyny, even when enacted by one person, gets its grip because of larger social dynamics. It reveals how misogyny is ultimately never a matter of purely individual attitudes or feelings, but always embedded in social norms and group responses.


To take up this last point, consider my male colleagues’ advice in (4) that I steer clear of the barking department head. It should be obvious that this was not actually a possible response for me. As department head, he was someone I would encounter at department meetings and committee meetings, and who would have authority over my annual performance reviews, determine my salary raises, and sit in judgment over my promotion. In numerous ways, he served as gatekeeper to my professional opportunities. Avoiding him could only be interpreted as non-collegial or uncooperative. Sensing, I guess, the necessity of my interacting with him, my colleagues suggested (5): cleave to postures of feminine subservience. I have to admit, this is a strategy that I, like many women, have had to resort to so many times that I have developed a scar from biting my tongue so often! (I have also come to loathe exclamation points, which must be used in every email to “soften” what might otherwise look too serious and severe, too masculine, without them: Good work! Great to see you! Thanks!!) But I also have to admit that I am by temperament not very good at playing the part of the docile woman. In fact, many of the skills that make me a good philosopher (argumentatively adroit, verbally adept, assertive, opinionated, perceptive, ambitious) make me a bad woman, which is to say, a woman who breaks with feminine gender norms. Regardless of my own temperament, or the actual strategic value of following my colleagues’ advice, the important point is that the advice itself recapitulates misogyny. In effect, my colleagues said to me, “down girl,” even though it was the department head who was the misbehaving dog. They participated in sustaining the very gender norms that make misogyny possible in this social context. An individual man’s behavior was a precipitating factor, but without reference to well-established gender norms, upheld by other men and women, his misogyny could not have had the effects it did. Misogyny begets more misogyny, as men (and sometimes women) coalesce in reinforcing the gendered expectations and penalizing deviance from them. To the extent that I failed to display the appropriate “down girl” behaviors—to the extent that I refused to heel, I exacerbated the misogynist climate. My defenses became more evidence of my being out of line. Good girls don’t resist their subjugation.


What my male colleagues might have done was challenge the department head, calling him out for his unprofessionalism and misogynistic hostility. They might have done it publicly or in private. They might have reported it to higher administration. They might have voted to remove him from his position of leadership. Or instead of drawing attention to the misogyny, they might have tried to compensate for it by making openings for me in conversations or meetings, recommending me for positions of leadership, publicly crediting my initiatives and ideas, or “bragging” for me about my professional accomplishments so as to sustain my value in the department. They did not. Their silence and reticence in the face of what they themselves acknowledged to be gender-based mistreatment constituted complicity in the patriarchal order. And this, too, is part of the logic of misogyny. Men who appear to be siding with women who are being subject to misogynist backlash may find themselves on the receiving end of the hostility; they risk losing status, that masculine-coded social good, if they break the alliance of men through their recognition of misogyny as an injustice. Over my many years of work among these men, this was perhaps the most painful realization for me—that men who spoke to me in private about the sexism and misogyny of the department would not defend this view publicly and, when push came to shove, even contributed to undermining my credibility. One senior man expressed to me his outrage over my mistreatment, but worried that if he spoke up, he’d lose his favored teaching schedule. Meanwhile, my entire career was on the line.


I said above that my story is a small story. And so it is. What I suffered, over many years, was small in comparison to the brutal violence and psychological abuse that many women experience in misogynistic environments. Small as it is, it is the story of a large stretch of my adult life that has ramified through my professional life and my personal life. Small as it is, it is a story that so many women attempting to succeed in a man’s world can relate to. Like many women, I have been loath to speak publicly about my experiences. I do not do so here out of a desire to aggrandize myself. Rather, it is the very ordinariness of my experience that drives me to insert it here for Manne’s book emphasizes misogyny as it is visible in the lives of public figures, like Clinton and Gillard, and in dramatic or tragic, headline-grabbing events. But the logic of misogyny writ large in these cases is also writ in the fine print of the lives of millions of ordinary women like me. Small as such stories are, the toll in the lives of women is large.


Though I have never met her, Manne is, like me, a professor of philosophy, a field that is approximately 80 percent male, a figure that hasn’t changed much in several decades. Manne’s book would have suffered an excess of scrutiny had she focused on her own experiences of misogyny (which have been expressed in interviews subsequent to publication of her book). Her conceptual acumen, careful research, and steady argumentation would no doubt have been eclipsed by the skepticism that accompanies any woman’s public representation of her experiences of misogyny. (Even as I write this, I am bracing for the possible backlash myself.) She was wise to focus on public examples in order to avoid this problem, and also because exposing the misogyny that operates at the highest reaches of politics and media reveals the extent to which our supposedly enlightened, gender-egalitarian society is still shaped by punitive attitudes toward women.


I observed above that while, initially, my male colleagues could perceive that I was being mistreated on account of being a woman, they seemed to be less able to perceive it as the years passed, even as the hostility increased and spread beyond the one bad apple. I’ve already suggested one reason this might happen: Over time, men may themselves become overtaxed by the risks associated with supporting a woman who is targeted by misogynist hostility. To ally oneself with a vulnerable party is to make oneself more vulnerable to attack. Another reason is that my redoubled efforts to prove my professionalism and competence only worked against me, when these were among the very things that proved threatening in the first place.


But Manne’s analysis supports another sort of explanation. When women lodge complaints against men in positions of power or authority, even when those men are widely acknowledged to be guilty, they often find themselves witness to a bizarre turn-around: the man guilty of abuse, or rape, or harassment becomes the recipient of empathy, while the woman victimized by his behavior is villainized. Manne calls the phenomenon “himpathy.” The accusatory question that women who speak up must face is, “Why do you want to ruin his life (or reputation)?” The questioner summons concern for the well-being of the guilty party rather than the well-being of the woman. The idea that women are entitled to justice, for themselves as well as on behalf of other actual or potential victims, seems to lie hidden behind another layer of misogyny—the assumption that women are devious, manipulative, untrustworthy, lying, or calculating whenever they challenge male power or status. Moreover, as Manne notes, misogynistic crimes against women are also, ipso facto, crimes against society. A just society would not question the legitimacy of calling to account a guilty man.


There is yet another reason why people may find it difficult to perceive the misogyny that limits and damages women in their midst: It is always (yes, always) possible to point to seemingly plausible alternative explanations of the social dynamics, which lay the blame on the woman. This is best known as “victim-blaming,” with the most well-known example being blaming a rape victim for her violent assault because she wore a short skirt, drank beer, or traveled unaccompanied to a nightclub. As Manne carefully explains, there is no such thing as a perfectly innocent victim, so it will always be possible to point to some aspect of her behavior and to suggest that she herself is the cause of her misogynistic treatment.


In workplace environments like mine, especially where one works among the same people for many years, there are bound to be substantive disputes and disagreements, minor failures, occasional screw-ups—on the part of all employees. There are also going to be the exigencies of life outside the office—relationship woes, family demands, illness, financial strain—that generate emotional twists and turns. And there is going to be the social fabric of friendships, romances, and sexual dalliances that forms a kind of unwieldy skein interlaced through the organizational hierarchy of the workplace. In other words, the social environment is exceedingly complex and each of the persons in it has a robust, distinctive personality and array of motives, feelings, and relationships. It will always be possible to point to the woman targeted by misogyny and say of her that she is the problem. “Personality conflict” is one euphemism that often substitutes for, and displaces, recognition of misogyny.  She is—I have heard said of so many women colleagues, including myself—crazy. Or, a bitch. Or, difficult. Or, a slut. Or, worthless. Or, stupid.


If a woman persists in her non-conforming behavior (not giving or taking the appropriate, gendered social goods, as described above), she will likely be subject to more misogynist retaliation. The more she leans in, the more men will push back. And as this dynamic persists, she will come to be seen, quite reasonably, as the common denominator. It is (only) when she is around that things seem difficult. Better to keep her away. (And, to be on the safe side, better not to hire any more women, or at least not any with strong personalities or ambitions.)


It is my observation that the more time one spends working in a misogynist social environment, the less likely one will be able to make the misogyny perspicuous to others because the more complicating social factors there are. Here, too, Manne’s framework for understanding misogyny proves helpful. She argues that misogyny does not deny women’s basic humanity. Rather, it depends upon recognizing it. Seeing women as fully human and enmeshed in complex social relationships, allows men (and sometimes women) to cast women in human social roles, including “rival, enemy, usurper, insubordinate, betrayer.” Women who step out of line become subject to the responses such labels inspire: they must be put in their place, destroyed, defeated, undermined, or punished. Thus, when women are accused of insubordination or betrayal, or reduced to epithets, we should not see such “explanations” for their being subject to attack as inconsistent with the logic of misogyny; often enough, these “personality conflicts” are simply a manifestation of misogyny. Part of what makes it so tricky to expose misogyny is that, as Manne astutely comments, it is a self-masking phenomenon.


Sadly, after nearly three-hundred pages of careful analysis, Manne observes that while researching and writing the book, she “became less optimistic about the prospects of getting people to take misogyny seriously [. . . .] The fact that misogyny is killing girls and women, literally and metaphorically, clearly isn’t enough to grip that many people.” Many people will shrug. Or, like people who are busily constructing their counterarguments rather than actually listening to what you have to say, many will simply reinvest in their denial of misogyny. As a society, we have a long way to go to position people to understand gender, equality, and respect. Manne’s efforts in this book are, to my mind, monumental, which makes her concluding observations especially heartbreaking. Heartbreak is a strange reaction to a book of moral philosophy, but one that proves the book’s importance.


Her Affective Labor

Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles by Diane Raptosh

Etruscan Press, 2020

Paperback, 116 pp., $17.00


Cover of Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles by Diane Raptosh.


Diane Raptosh is the poet of the unlikely.


Of course, any creative act in itself is rather unlikely, whether it is the cosmic creation ex nihilo in which the universe is manifested out of an accident of strong and weak forces converging and dissipating, leaving some errant subatomic particles behind to crash together for the big bang, or the simple clapping of hands, a rhythm, a disruption, a repetition. A creative act is the convergence of everything, an impossibility, which only has to happen once, and there it is: the dreamy reverb by David Roback, the breath between H. D.’s lines, the abdominal contraction before Bill T. Jones’s turns.


Over her thirty-year career, Raptosh has produced wicked, loopy, political, surrealistic, and unforgettable poetry: experimental and wild, a free-roaming poet of the Idaho sagelands. Her work leaps madly into the mud-pools of language with a child’s abandon, but with an intelligence that is hard, uncompromising, and disturbing in its own playfulness.


Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles completes Raptosh’s verse trilogy, a project nobly supported by Etruscan Press. The first in the series is American Amnesiac (2013), a book-length, ghazal-sequenced monologue spoken by a former Goldman Sachs exec, who seeks to recover his identity, to reconstitute himself as an improbable and decent citizen. In the second book, Human Directional (2016), Raptosh leaves the individual to explore the collective and atomized human consciousness via a slapdash of prose poems, exploded catalogues, and single-line jokes. In her trilogy, we are stuck in the hell-scape of an American post-capitalistic society: racist, punitive, commodified, cruel, and degrading. Yet, multi-vocal and therefore hopeful, precisely because of the fissures and fractures that occur amid all the digital noise.


With Dear Z, Raptosh brilliantly answers this world with a set of letters addressed to our pre-embryotic, single-cell existence: a single fertilized ovum, a “love speck,” which drifts down the fallopian tubes. Perhaps finding purchase on the uterine wall and becoming, and perhaps just being flushed out of the system entirely and not becoming. We will find that in Raptosh’s poems this difference matters perhaps less than we’d think.


The voice is materternal, not that of the mother but of the aunt: intimate, loving, world-weary, and transgressive. It is a voice that is fully queered and unmoored, wholly original:


Dear Zero,


Most humans evolved only once—in what’s likely

East Africa, 200,000 years ago. So don’t freak


when I shout out We share the same mama:

Mitochondrial Eve. Unlike the one in the Garden


of Eden, mtEve was not the sole woman on Earth,

but the one who made her descent into everyone.


So pray tell, teeny homunculus, as the line

from “Time of the Season” by the Zombies,


that British Invasion band, goes: Who’s your daddy?


Please know that should you come be, Big Data

will quickly conceive you as processing stream,


a more or less numeral entity—lacking internal lyric:

that giddiest hymnal. That solemn bee. The think feeling


fist that is inwit. Queerest iota, does this kind of talk

smack of hokum-humanist seething on my part?


Our shared mother mtEve was mostly a kink of statistics,

a ringing quark of a person: a true lovely, who probably


knew to venerate horses.


Here is a whirlwind of what Raptosh does so singularly well: the careening slant rhymes and punning, the clack of assonant syllables against sharp end consonants, and the driving free associations that make perfect sense. But amid all this dazzle, Raptosh is in impressive control of her material.


In this passage, she isolates “inwit,” a word she introduces in Human Directional, and a word she parses out in her essay, “Poetry is Where the Action Is”:


. . . inwit suggests the inner senses and interior sensibility: that collection of inner faculties the poet sets store by. Inwit is, by my reckoning, the very womb in which the poet thrives.


It seems to me that the entirety of Dear Z is an exceptionally crafted articulation and enactment of inwit. Indeed, one suspects it is a quality deep in our mitochondrial DNA, somewhere in our circuitry, we just know we must somehow “venerate horses.” Our capacity to engage in affective labor—to love, to imagine, to be awed, to empathize, to connect—surely comes from that first “mama” that Raptosh names.


Throughout these letters to the zygote, the speaker faithfully accepts the binary of becoming and not becoming, and she celebrates this suspended (and free-falling) state. After all, even the zygote that does “not become” has “been,” a sack of genetic coding as ancient as the first evolution.


Dear Z,


in the presence

of your latency—


that vacant shoe,

those shades


of facelessness—

let’s say


I think I feel

the sound of dots moving.


Our ancestral connections, both to the past and future generations, are but Morse code taps on our own genetic coding. We have the same mother running through us, the sound of dots moving. An un-extraordinary miracle-mirror. A tapping.


Diane Raptosh gives us a speaker who possesses that womb-wisdom, who is generous and critical in her advice, especially when the news is harrowing. We have a great poet among us with commitment and daring and craft, who teases us and indulges us with her unconditioned and unconditional wisdom.