Friday, 11 September 2009

Five influential female authors

Here's an internet/blogging meme coming via Ken at C. Orthodoxy. It asks us, as the post title says, to name five female authors that have been influential to us.

As the father of a precocious almost-two-year-old girl, I make sure to celebrate female excellence as much as possible in order to counterbalance the undeniable tendency, here and now, for there to be more men than women in prominent positions - politically, socially, economically, and culturally.

So here goes: five awesome writers who happen to be women.*

Ursula K. Le Guin. Every book of hers that I've read has moved, delighted, and surprised me. She wrote The Dispossessed, the best argument for an egalitarian, property-free, anarchist society that I've come across (it's a novel). She wrote the Earthsea books, easily equal to Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series (both of which I love) for epic awesomeness and tender humanness. She wrote an excellent version of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. (Here's one of the verses from it, which I quoted from here.) There are more, but I think I'll let you discover them for yourself. Le Guin's influence has been to show me that bold ideas don't preclude humble values like compassion and human vulnerability. Most of the science fiction I read growing up (and there was a lot - I was that kind of kid) was written by men from a particular era. At the risk of sounding sexist, it shows. Action, adventure, sex, but not much quiet humanity. Le Guin taught me that, even in genres like science fiction and fantasy, even when your characters include hermaphroditic psychics living on a planet of snow and ice or powerful wizards who can command the elements with arcane words, there is space for a fully human narrative. (There are male authors who I would rank close to her in this regard, but none quite as good at it, and anyway this post isn't about them.)

Gloria Borden and Katherine Harris. I'm listing these two together, because they are co-authors (along with Lawrence Raphael) of the Speech Science Primer**, my first textbook in phonetics - the physical science of speech. I am now at the end of a PhD in phonetics, with a dissertation approved and bound (nice thick tome) that adds a little to the sum of human knowledge. Although the main credit for my education goes to all the in-person teachers I've had (several of whom were women), I have to acknowledge that this well-presented and understandable textbook gave me a level of understanding and confidence in the field that helped cement my choice, leading me into an exciting field of scientific discovery.

Marjorie Tew. We humanists pride ourselves on following the evidence. We make a big deal of the fact that modern medicine is generally evidence-based (as opposed to most types of alternative "medicine", which are either evidence-free or based on very fallible types of evidence, such as anecdote). Tew, a statistician, followed a line of evidence in a surprising direction, and relates the story and the evidence in her book Safer Childbirth? (the question mark is in the title). In it, she presents a compelling empirical case that, in modern industrialised nations, giving birth in a hospital is not safer than giving birth at home. (For anyone interested, I related some key details of her arguments a couple of years ago in this thread at the Bad Science forums.) Her book was a large part of what persuaded Deena and me to plan a homebirth with Kaia. We are planning the same for baby #2 (due in a few short weeks). Again, there were other influences, but Tew's approach and her arguments were an important factor in our decision.

Julia Sweeney (and here). Okay, so this may be stretching the definition of "author" a bit. I know Julie Sweeney through the audio version of two of her monologues: In the Family Way, and Letting Go of God. They are basically books, just in a different medium. Sort of. Anyway, it's my blog, so I can choose whoever I want. Julia Sweeney's main influence on me is through the religious monologue, Letting Go of God. In it, she recounts her journey from being a contented Catholic, through reading the Bible, encountering doubt, wrestling with it, trying out different ideas, and eventually coming out a contented atheist. It's a fun listen. It's also valuable because whenever she elicits laughs, they are primarily directed at her - or at ideas she entertained, or thoughts she had. Not at other people, not in a sneering "I'm better than you" way.

It is, I think, the gentlest way I have ever encountered for someone to outline why she doesn't believe in God. Let someone laugh with you, at you, and you cease to be a threatening figure, an enemy. You become simply human, and it's much easier to try to sympathise with someone who's simply human than someone who is speaking as a scientist, or as a philosopher (or, perhaps, as a blogger). Goodness knows I have nothing like Julia Sweeney's talent for humour, but whenever I think about engaging a religious believer in discussion about topics we differ on, I think of Julia Sweeney and her approach. I think she has helped me become a more friendly humanist.

So there you have it. Five women whose writing (or similar creative output) has influenced me. One author of fiction, three scientists, and a performer/autobiographer.

The five women I've talked about above have influenced me, but their influence pales next to that of the women I know and have known in person - family, friends, colleagues, teachers.

Also, though I celebrate these women and their influence on me, I do it because of what they have done, not just because they are women. I hope that, as she grows up, Kaia will find inspiration and perhaps role-models in women like these, but also in men who write influential, inspiring, interesting, or great things. Or even humble things that nevertheless make our world better.

* I couldn't find photos for all five, so I've decided to leave this post image-free. You can see some of them by following the links provided.

** I'm linking to Amazon's listing of the 3rd edition of the Speech Science Primer, which is the one I used. There are more recent editions that you should look at if you are considering buying the book: speech science is a dynamic field, and some of what they had to say in 1994 is out of date now.

1 comment:

  1. Now I'm glad I forgot to tag anyone as I probably would have chosen biblical studies types. What a wonderful list!

    BTW, I hadn't realized you are doing your PhD in phonetics. I took one semester of linguistics as an undergrad and I found it fascinating (and very helpful when I later studied Greek and Hebrew). Have you summarized your thesis somewhere online?


This blog has now moved to a new domain:

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.