What Can Women Know?

Despite Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton being a novel about the plight of the working poor, Gaskell, or rather, her narrator, spends rather a lot of time identifying with the middle and upper class. Gaskell’s preface ends with her denying any knowledge of political economy, the topic on which the novel centers. The denial of female knowledge and expertise, unfortunately, presents a strong parallel between the gender politics of Gaskell’s writing and expectations of women in media today.

In Elizabeth Gaskell: The Critical Heritage, John Forster, a reviewer, writes that, “Unquestionably the book is a woman’s…we might have known it from the delicate points…where women and children are in question.” She published anonymously, but once people found out she was a woman, their perception of the work changed. This reminds me of the often belittling manner in which female celebrities are asked about their work, with questions that undermine their credibility from the outset. Mayim Bialik, who plays a genius on the show The Big Bang Theory was once asked by a reporter if people assumed that she understood complicated mathematics because she plays a character who can. The problem with this question is that he assumed that she can’t do this; in reality, she’s a neuroscientist and studied calculus extensively in college.

In this case, it isn’t Bialik discrediting her own knowledge like Gaskell does in saying that she knows nothing of political economy; she is being discredited by the assumptions society makes about female creators versus their male counterparts. This is not so different, however, from Gaskell’s situation in that Gaskell perhaps needed to deny knowledge of political economy so as not to unsettle gender norms and politics of the time.

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