Once More, with Feeling

What’s a woman allowed to say?

That’s a question I wrestled with a lot while I was writing and revising my new book, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. Really ironic; so much of the book deals with struggles over who gets to say what gender means—and the whole book is written from the perspective of an unashamed feminist. So why worry about the question of what women are “allowed” to say?

Reality. That’s why my agent, my editors, and I worried about it. Because the reality is people would judge what I was saying not just by the words, but by the fact that my first name is “Alice.”

Reading a recent essay in the New York Times by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant validated that fear. Sandberg and Grant reviewed Grant’s research findings as well as a new study by Yale University psychologist Victoria Brescoll—all of it arriving at the same conclusion: women get dinged for speaking up, while men get rewarded. This happens even at the level of the Senate floor.

I knew this even before this research came out. Most women who succeed in America know these unwritten rules. So I guess it is no surprise that I found myself, in dealing with Galileo’s Middle Finger, feeling like I had to de-feminize my voice over and over.

Taken out over the course of edits were several accounts of my breaking into tears (something I think we have nothing to be ashamed of), references to being a wife and mother, and quite a few lines that if I were a man would get me labeled “bold,” but as a woman would only get me labeled “shrill.”

Even when we reached the point of the book jacket, I found myself editing out my gender. The draft text for the jacket referred to “one woman’s eye-opening story.” I changed it to “one American’s eye-opening story.”

“How often,” I not-so-rhetorically asked the folks I was working with, “do women writing non-fiction books make the best-seller list?”

When they do, it’s often because they’re writing about being women. Exhibit A: Sandberg’s Leaning In. We’re allowed to speak up if we stay in the women’s parlor, talking about women’s issues. . . .

Best to focus on my nationality, which is easily as relevant to this book as my gender. Still…

I have a fantasy—and that is that this book will succeed in being about being an American, and that then it will be read as a story about how women are real Americans, too—qua women.

We American women might even be able, someday, to have authentic voices that don’t get us punished.

In the meantime, you might understand why I’ve named this new blog—which is about my new book—Once More, with Feeling. Warning: some posts may get shrill.