Pushing back on gendered expectations: the Otherwise Award

I’ve had a hard time talking about what happened to Ruth George last week; I look at her, and I see my sisters, cousins, daughter. It’s heart-breaking. Shattering. This is what I have so far.

I was talking to my students yesterday in our gender & sexuality in lit class about manners, and the way manners are enforced differently for men vs. women. Manners can be a way of making it easier for people to live together, but at the same time, they so often act to prop up the existing power structure. (We’re in the midst of Ann Leckie‘s _Ancillary Justice_, and chapter 19 has some excellent material relevant to this.)

We connected that to modesty culture and the way so many of their parents enforce it in their homes (this class was all young women, and they were full of frustrated personal stories). Wildly differing standards for sons and daughters. Policing of the wearing of bras, leggings, tank tops.

We also talked about how one of our UIC students, Ruth George, was brutally raped and murdered last week, after walking to the campus parking garage late at night; she tried to ignore the man catcalling her, and he got angry.

We discussed the balancing act — what you want to do is change the parameters overall, expect better of men, demand that they resist the patriarchy and the sexist soup that they’ve been swimming in their whole lives. We have to try to reshape the world to be a better place. But in the meantime, we also have to live in the world we’re in, and try to survive it.

So sometimes we’re pushing back on gendered expectations — look, women get to wear pants now, and go to college, and become doctors, and have their own bank accounts. We get to vote, and at least run for president. (Kamala Harris has just stepped out of the race, but a black & Indian woman was a serious contender for president of the United States. I have to count that as a victory.)

Yet at the same time, I’m still going to talk to my daughter about walking alone at night, and being careful with her drink at college parties and bars. I hate that I have to talk to her about this, especially since I know there’s no way to anticipate every act of possible violence. There is nothing Ruth’s parents could have done to guarantee her safety. And yet.

Tomorrow is the last class of the semester, and we’ll be trying to connect all of this to what the various writers we’ve been reading are doing in their work. How Le Guin and Tiptree and Delany and Butler and Leckie all tried to offer us different visions of gender in society. They disturbed the entrenched sexist assumptions in our brains, making it possible to envision different futures. Better futures.

Long-term, we keep having the conversations that hopefully change the behavior of the men around us. Some of the men, at least. And we try to raise better sons. But in the meantime, we balance that urgent need for revolution against today’s hope for health and sanity.

We hope to live to take the fight a little further tomorrow. We mourn our losses.


The award that is closest to my heart is the Otherwise Award, given for works that expand or explore our understanding of gender. I was proud to serve as a juror for it, and recommend its annual finalists and winner to you as a reading list. It would be an excellent basis for a college or high school class.


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