starlady: A woman in a sepia photograph wearing a military uniform (fight like a girl)
DuChamp, L. Timmel. De Secretis Mulierum. Seattle, WA: Aqueduct Press, 2008. [1995]

[personal profile] wild_irises leant me this book. I only wish I had liked it as much as I felt like I should have.

The title is also the title of a tract by Aquinas, and in medieval and modern Latin can be translated as "On the Secrets of Women." (In classical, it would be "mysteries.")

This is No. 22 in Duchamp's Aqueduct Press' Conversation Pieces - I have another one that I bought at Wiscon 34 that I've been halfway through since Wiscon 34, more or less - and it was originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Maybe in 1995 its glaring problems were easier to overlook.

I suspect some of my complaints here are a form of insider ball combined with professional defensiveness: let me state that up front. That said, the novella follows the (we're told) "feminist grad student" Jane Pendler as she tries to hold off her sexist asshole advisor-lover, Teddy Warner, and get enough time in on the Past Scan Device (PSD) to finish her dissertation on Leonardo da Vinci, whom the PSD has revealed to be biologically female.

The fundamental problem is that Jane and Teddy are both the worst kind of clichés about academia, and Duchamp clearly doesn't actually know much about the movement of scholarship in history up until the 1990s, let alone since then - and the Past Scan Device should feel a bit more near-future than this story does, I think. The way she describes Teddy's scholarship, in particular, is incoherent at the methodological level; it's certainly possible for historians to be sexist assholes, but it tends to come out in their work in subtler ways than the ways Jane describes. Furthermore, no committee in history would have approved her dissertation topic in the first place, because we don't write biographies anymore, and that is fundamentally what she's doing. The occasional references to "revolutionizing periodization" sound good on paper but are also incoherent w/r/t actual historiography. Also, Berkeley doesn't have a Medieval Studies Institute, FFS.

Jane deserves what she gets career-wise, somewhat because she walks blind into her graduate program but primarily because both she and Teddy behave in ways that are completely unprofessional and borderline unethical from start to finish, and I really just wish we could put the "male academic sleeping with his female students" cliché to rest right now, for two reasons: one, it describes a state of affairs that was much more common in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when women were starting to trailblaze into the academy and their male advisors were completely unprepared for how to relate to them appropriately (and vice versa, to some extent), and it is no longer accurate or acceptable - all reputable schools have policies in place against these sorts of things, and professors are usually disciplined fairly stringently for it. More women attend graduate school (and higher education in general) than men these days, although of course they are not equally represented on university faculties. Two, rehashing this dated cliché lends material support to that image in pop culture and undermines real female graduate students and academics, who obviously could only have achieved their successes by sleeping around. Fuck you. (And yeah, I am a female academic, so this is a home point for me, and for a feminist author I wish Duchamp had written this story to be less damaging to actual female academics. Jane is an immature person for all that she is an insightful scholar, which is not entirely uncommon in grad school in my experience, but jebus is it annoying to read as a POV. And I have no sympathy for her and her idiocy, both personal and professional.)

So, all of this is a way of me working up to hurling the worst sort of epithet a feminist book reviewer like me can hurl against a feminist author like Duchamp, which is that the book feels much more didactic than organic. The kernel of the story's concept, about gender and history and representation, might be interesting. (Though the idea that Aquinas' supposed anti-dualism, or Leonardo's sympathy to the position of women in society, could only come about because he was secretly female is also somewhat reductive, in the other direction.) But the book really isn't about any of that; it's about Jane and Teddy and their hackneyed soap opera. I also find the last lines of the story to be rather problematic:

For while we have no choice but to attribute male gender (and therefore male pronouns) to Leonardo, it is my contention that Leonardo still saw the world with a woman's eye and sketched and painted it with a woman's hand. Indeed, one sex and another gender together made one sensitive and brilliant human being, an individual greater than the sum of his and her parts. (81, emphasis original)

Tl, dr; second wave: get it together already, FFS.