Women We Read This Week

Larissa MacFarquhar’s “Last Call” in The New Yorker

Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of Nemoto, a Japanese Buddhist monk who has made his temple a refuge and a place of transformation for suicidal people, contains enough surprising twists and depth to fill a novel. Nemoto’s story is phenomenal enough: the suicides of his family members and close friends in childhood, a debilitating motorcycle accident that pushed him to enter a Rinzai Zen monastery, his awakening in the monastery, his successful graduation and subsequent decision to work at a fast food restaurant in Tokyo, his creation of a web site where he responded to people’s suicidal thoughts, his breakdown from the resulting stress, his decision to make his temple a destination for the desperately suicidal, his success in assuaging those who seek his aid by making them confront their deaths. Wow. Okay. There’s more happening there ethically and spiritually than takes place in a lot of contemporary fiction.

But layered on top of all this are insights about Japan’s suicide culture, and about suicide in general– “often the difference between death and life depends upon the difference between two o’clock and four o’clock” — as well as a mesmerizing immersion into life in a Zen monastery: “[the monk] is always too slow, he is always afraid, and he is always being scrutinized. In the winter, he is cold, but if he looks cold he is screamed at…The idea is to throw away his self and, in doing so, find out who he is.”

And at the quiet center of the piece is MacFarquhar’s enduring preoccupation with “moral saints”: people whose morality is so far beyond the pale of what might be expected of the average member of society that they ignite both awe and ire. In a fantastic interview with The Boston Review, MacFarquhar describes them this way: “They don’t think they’re saintly people; they think they’re just doing their duty. They think about it in the same way most people think about not stealing: we don’t get proud of ourselves for not stealing, because it just goes without saying. They feel like that.” It is this notion of duty that makes people uncomfortable and defensive.

The most fascinating aspect of MacFarquhar’s work is its lack of emotion–she keeps her distance, not judging, not giving us these swelling Hollywood climaxes, which reinforces this idea of extreme morality as duty, not exceptionality. It’s unsettling more than inspiring, which also makes one question one’s own moral sense. I can’t wait to read MacFarquhar’s forthcoming book on these questions of morality, which asks, as she tells The Boston Review, “whether there is any limit to what can be morally required of us, and whether there’s anything wrong with a life that’s lived according to extreme moral principles.” Sarah

“Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry: ‘I will not accept online misogyny'” in The Guardian

Well, it’s been a hell of a week for women in music (I’m looking at you, Miley Cyrus and Sinéad O’Connor). Here’s what I’m choosing to focus on: this piece, in which Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry speaks out – thoughtfully, graciously – against casual sexism, objectification, and what she calls “the ‘push the girl to the front’ blueprint often relied upon by labels and management in a tragic attempt to sell records.” Perhaps what’s most interesting about this is how Mayberry positions herself, and Chvrches, with the opening line: “I am in a band that was born on the internet.” She repeatedly stresses how important (online, personal) interaction with listeners is to the success of the band – and how the social networks out of which abuse emerges are also the same networks which bolster the band and allow them to make their music. It’s an increasingly common (maybe increasingly necessary) position, and it’s good to see a musician acknowledge and examine it. So, prompted by a flurry of “offensively vile” comments left on the band’s Facebook page – example: “This isn’t rape culture. You’ll know rape culture when I’m raping you, bitch” – Mayberry unpicks and rejects the idea that being a woman in the public eye (/ear) necessitates acceptance of whatever shit the trolls can throw at you.

But why should women “deal” with this? I am incredibly lucky to be doing the job I am doing at the moment – and painfully aware of the fact that I would not be able to make music for a living without people on the internet caring about our band. But does that mean that I need to accept that it’s OK for people to make comments like this, because that’s how women in my position are spoken to?


Eileen Pollack “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” in The New York Times

Eileen Pollack’s article touches on the many ways in which our society profoundly and often unconsciously creates and reinforces gender binaries: such as, men are good at science/women are not.

Last summer, researchers at Yale published a study proving that physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist more favorably than a woman with the same qualifications. Presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s. Surprisingly, female scientists were as biased as their male counterparts.

This gendered bias in science persists. For example, in 2005, Larry Summers, the President of Harvard, argued that the underrepresentation of women in the sciences was due to “innate” differences between men and women.

The female physicists and scientists interviewed for the article mention being consistently isolated, bullied, and shamed for their interest in the sciences. Meanwhile, their male counterparts, even if they only achieved mediocre academic success, were praised and encouraged to go to graduate school.

According to Pollack, “The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.”



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