Feminism: Merrie Haskell on Conflict

[Content Note: Sexism]

The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell
   “Stăpână,” I said, dropping the plain curtsy that indicated respect for an elder. That was an easy curtsy, and I didn’t bobble like I did with the deeper gestures. But then, because I can spare only so many good manners in one day, I asked, “Why do you call Brother Cosmin ‘herb-husband’?”

   “Before Brother Cosmin arrived, I was the castle herb-wife,” she said, stretching out her half-netted sock and checking it against a finished one. “I retired to take care of these folks here. I’ve nothing against Cosmin. I just think that calling him ‘herb-husband’ keeps him honest. He puts on airs, and uses fancy titles like ‘herbalist,’ because he has books.”

   I considered that and decided it might be safer to have no opinion on this subject, even though I took my future as a master herbalist very seriously. I would be annoyed if people referred to me as an herb-wife, someone who knew her receipts by rote instead of being able to read and write.

   But I didn’t want to annoy Mistress Adina, and I had great respect for her age, so I kept my mouth shut about all that.

Part of living in a community with other people means having disagreements and differences of opinion. And part of getting along with those people often involves learning which ideological battles are worth fighting, and when, and against whom. One of the things that is sure to delight me in a novel is the existence of characters who understand and accept this framing, and who navigate socially fraught situations with some consideration for the other people involved (as opposed to engaging in every battle, all the time, no matter what the context).

This conversation stuck with me because both Adina and Reveka (the protagonist) have valid points of view. Adina is mildly irritated that she was called merely an "herb-wife", while her successor -- a man who (as revealed in the narrative) has literacy, but neither the imagination nor the basic motivation to genuinely help others, and who is ultimately not good at his work in spite of his advantages of education and wealth -- is hailed with the more prestigious title of "herbalist", not because he's better at healing people but because he has wealthy-educated-male privilege. Adina addresses this sexist slight against herself by referring to Brother Cosmin as an "herb-husband" in contrast to her prior title of "herb-wife".

Reveka's equally valid point of view is that she wants to grow up to be all that the title "herbalist" implies: as good at healing as Adina the herb-wife was, but also literate and capable of learning beyond rote memorization and experimentation. She has a legitimate concern that even if she ends up being as skilled as she hopes to become, people might still refer to her by a lesser title than she feels she has earned, and that would be a product of sexism -- a way of denigrating healing as done by a woman as mere women's work.

Both these women have legitimate concerns about sexism: Adina is concerned that a lesser-skilled man can have a higher title just by virtue of being male and privileged; Reveka is concerned that a greater-skilled woman like herself may be labeled with a lower title merely because she is female instead of male. And Adina's solution to deal with the sexism in her own life may well end up conflicting with Reveka's concerns, since Reveka would prefer that Adina not call her an "herb-wife" when she grows up. There may well not be a resolution between the two women, because sexism and classism are complicated like that.

But Reveka likes Adina and Adina likes Reveka, and so Reveka decides not to fight this battle with Adina, at least not right now when Reveka hasn't even grown up to be an herbalist yet. Maybe they'll have a conversation about it later, and maybe Adina will respect Reveka's wishes as to her title. Or maybe Reveka will decide that Adina's experience of a lifetime of background prejudice for being illiterate are worth more than Reveka's need for a title, and she may never speak to Adina about the issue at all. We aren't told, as such a conversation is outside the scope of this book.

What we are told is that the issue is complex and complicated, that both Reveka and Adina have opinions that are reasonable from their own points of view, and that the two women respect each other enough and have a deep enough friendship that the reader is given to understand that they'll somehow work out a solution they can both be comfortable with. And I like that, because I feel that kind of complexity is deeply reflective of my own experiences in navigating entrenched sexism through interpersonal relationships -- a process that is rarely easy, and yet can be done when both parties respect and care for each other.


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