I read at Zuska's today that there is a movie coming out about the Ecole Polytechnique massacre. There's a short article about it on the Chronicle of Higher Education's News Blog. I first heard about this terrible tragedy when Alice posted in remembrance on Sciencewomen. At the time, I was deeply saddened, especially because I had never heard about it before. I was just about to graduate high school on December 6, 1989, the day that Marc Lepine marched into a classroom in the engineering school of Montreal University carrying a semi-automatic rifle, told the fifty-odd men to leave, called the remaining nine women "a bunch of fucking feminists", and then shot them all. Then wandered through the rest of the building, still shooting, until he had killed fourteen women and injured nine other women and four men. He finished it all off by stabbing one of the women he had shot but not quite killed, and then shooting himself. And, yet, I do not remember hearing a single thing about this event until I read Alice's post. Perhaps that is because it happened in Canada, and I grew up in the midwest, the heartland of America, where people don't really care what happens too far north.
But, when I first heard the story, I identified somewhat with the victims. I am not an engineer, but I did my undergrad in another traditionally male-dominated field, and am in graduates school in a slightly different field that still has far to go before achieving parity. I have experienced my share of dismissive and even nasty treatment by misogynistic assholes. I have friends who have endured worse. I understand the idea of the "chilly climate" for women in academia.But I have never been shot at, and I have no reason to believe that I will ever have to endure the kind or ordeal that unfolded in the Ecole Polytechnique on that day.
It was purely out of curiosity that I chose to watch the trailer for the film, which is simply called Polytechnique ,and is going to be released in Canada on February 6, in French and English. I found myself in tears. And it was because of a simple gesture, highlighted in a single shot of the trailer. One of the women takes the hand of the woman next to her, and presses it to the side of her leg. This gesture is, for me, the essence of what it is to be a wife, a mother, and a friend, all in one. I held my husband's hand like that on our wedding day, before the ultrasounds of our two beautiful children, and as we walked up to the office where we closed on our condominium. I hold my children's hands like that while waiting to cross the street and before they have a shot at the doctor's office. I have held the hand of a friend like that when they needed to know I was there for them. I could easily imagine myself holding another woman's hand like that if we were facing something as horrific as Marc Lepine brandishing a semi-automatic rifle. And, just like that, I could imagine myself BEING one of those women. That really rattled me.
It wasn't all that clear to me why I had such a powerful response to the trailer. But in a Chronicle article written six weeks after the massacre, Veronica Strong-Boag, a professor of history and women's studies at Simon Fraser University is quoted:
It's hard for young women in engineering to admit that they could have been one of those killed in Montreal.
I don't expect public statements of feminism from them. What I expect is a lot of denial, because that's the only thing that allows them to live in that hostile world.
There's a link to this in the text of the News Blog item, but it's behind a pay wall. The point, though, is that those of us who are busy upsetting the status quo by doing things that run against cultural norms have to compartmentalize things - we know the stories of the indignities and discrimination that others have faced, but we cannot place ourselves in their shoes, and still continue to walk the paths before us. To do so would mean making ourselves vulnerable in potentially dangerous ways. One of the ways I protect myself on a daily basis is by permitting myself to enter an alternate universe where I actually do live in my ideal society, and that nothing I am doing is unusual. This works because, among sane people, if someone asks me how I am going to finish graduate school while raising two children, and I respond with an uncomprehending look and a comment like, "Oh, I'll figure it out," they tend to just go along with me. I go along with me, too. I can't allow the thought that some maniac might decide not to go along with me and, instead, to blast me to hell for that to enter my mind. If I do, the armature that holds up my armor may crumble, and where would I be then.
But that doesn't mean that I don't need to face the fact that there are people out there who think really ugly things about women like me. Who think that my husband ought to show me who is boss and put me back in my place. Who might even think that death is an appropriate punishment for a woman who won't settle for her prescribed position in life. I do need to face that, and we as a society need to face it. If we pretend this is not so, then nothing will ever really change. And the only place that my ideal society will exist will continue to be in my imagination, no matter what wonderful things that wisp of strength permits me to achieve.