“Emperors per se did not unnerve Miles . . . . Emperor Gregor had been raised along with Miles practically as his foster-brother; somewhere in the back of Miles’s mind the term emperor was coupled with such identifiers as somebody to play hide-and-seek with. In this context those hidden assumptions could be a psychosocial land mine.”
Lois McMaster Bujold, Cetaganda

When I read Dr. Crazy’s post about dealing with a mostly-male committee, along with its comments, and then reflected on my own experiences, I realized that these hidden assumptions have an enormous influence on how we respond to people. In situations such as Crazy describes, I tend not to even notice what’s going on.

You see, I grew up with two older brothers—a decade older—who saw it as their job to toughen me up. I often think that the most lasting result of this toughening was to leave me reluctant to spend much time with my brothers, or men like them. (Sir John is a different breed entirely.) But on reflection, they had a considerable effect on me. From the time I was about five, and allowed out of our yard if I was with a brother, I tagged along as often as I could. I played in a lot of softball games with whatever neighborhood kids could be scraped up, usually boys 5-10 years older than I was. I climbed trees, waded creeks, built mud castles, and got dragged up and down hills that were beyond my strength, sometimes getting piggy-backed home.

Now, because of the brothers and the pick-up softball games, when I’m in a room full of men who are behaving like guys (jockeying for position, baiting each other, and so on), I shift into a similar mode. They push, I push back, and pretty soon we all know where we are. Even reasonable men adopt this mode from time to time, sometimes in response to less reasonable men starting it. I once served on a mixed committee (chaired by a man) for a year, no trouble, and then at the end of the year, I headed an all-male subcommittee. When we were left alone for the first time, considerable wrangling ensued, bypassing my input entirely—until I pounded on the table and shouted. After that, things went smoothly again. But I didn’t think about how to handle it; I didn’t take offense, either. I just did what seemed obvious, and which probably is obvious only to women who have had similar early training.

I have observed that women who have spent a lot of time in male-dominated professions tend to learn how to push back effectively, no matter what their family constellation was. I have also noticed that of my close women friends, almost everyone is from a female-dominant family, most often without brothers. So I don’t think the push-back mode is my preference, even if I can do it without thinking when it seems called for.

My brothers teased and tormented me, but the result is that it’s very hard for anyone else’s efforts at insults and intimidation to get through to me. When I bought my first condo, the developer’s lawyer was a nasty piece of work who thought, at the closing, that he could bully me into not pursuing various issues. He sneered at me, and I listened politely and ignored the ad feminam attacks. He yelled at me, and I sat back with an expression that indicated I was trying not to laugh in his face. He finally gave up, unclear on why he wasn’t getting his way, and I got mine. I did notice what was going on, but I didn’t feel insulted.

Even more important than the fact of having brothers is my family position. I am The Little Sister. When I’m the only woman in a room full of men, I know (in the back of my mind, one of those deeply hidden assumptions) that I am The Mascot and I can get away with anything! So it never occurs to me that anyone is expecting me to keep my mouth shut and be good. In a fundamental way that has absolutely nothing at all to do with current social reality, I know that my brothers will defend me against all non-relatives and Mom will protect me when my brothers get out of hand.

I’m pretty sure I’m not bratty to my colleagues, and I would hate to be called on any of these assumptions, because there’s nobody around to beat people up on my behalf any more. But that early psychosocial training has certainly affected the attitude I project. Though I haven’t picked up a bat in decades and hope I’ll never swing one again, “senior dudes,” in my mind, go with such identifiers as “people to play softball with” (sandlot softball, not the tame kind with coaches). Occasionally this is a land mine. Mostly it seems to make life easier.

So credit where it’s due: my brothers’ efforts to toughen me up were not all bad.

3 thoughts on “Brothers and devils; or, personal/political

  1. What do you think of the latest series? I love the Vorkosigan books and the Chalion set, but not the lakewalkers. They drag on too long, and the family conflicts are too ordinary. Not what I read fantasy for!

  2. [sorry, slow to check back, got lost in the tabs in my RSS reader] Oh, actually, I do like the Lakewalkers. Better than Chalion. But I also like romances, and ordinary things, and I didn't find them draggy (though I have seen other people say so—but I like the detail on how people live). I resisted them for a long time because the back copy on vol 1 was very weak.Also, the family conflicts are fundamentally about race and mixed-marriages, and how people deal with strangers, and cross-cultural encounters, and the essentially insoluble settler-nomad conflict, and I sort of study all those things, so—not too ordinary for me. 🙂

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