Easy Chair — From the October 2014 issue

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

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The story of Cassandra, the woman who told the truth but was not believed, is not nearly as embedded in our culture as that of the Boy Who Cried Wolf — that is, the boy who was believed the first few times he told the same lie. Perhaps it should be. The daughter of the king of Troy, Cassandra was cursed with the gift of accurate prophecies no one heeded; her people thought she was both crazy and a liar and, in some accounts, locked her up before Agamemnon turned her into a concubine who was casually slain along with him.

I have been thinking of Cassandra as we sail through the choppy waters of the gender wars, because credibility is such a foundational power in those wars and because women are so often accused of being categorically lacking in this department.

Not uncommonly, when a woman says something that impugns a man, particularly a powerful one (not a black one unless he’s just been nominated for the Supreme Court by a Republican president), or an institution, especially if it has to do with sex, the response will question not just the facts of her assertion but her capacity to speak and her right to do so. Generations of women have been told they are delusional, confused, manipulative, malicious, conspiratorial, congenitally dishonest, often all at once.

Part of what interests me is the impulse to dismiss and how often it slides into the very incoherence or hysteria of which women are routinely accused. It would be nice if, say, Rush Limbaugh, who called Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for testifying to Democrats in Congress about the need to fund birth control and who apparently completely failed to comprehend how birth control works — Limbaugh the word-salad king, the factually challenged, the eternally riled — got called hysterical once in a while.

Rachel Carson was labeled thus for her landmark work on the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring. Carson had put together a book whose research was meticulously footnoted and whose argument is now considered prophetic. But the chemical companies were not happy, and being female was, so to speak, her Achilles’ heel. On October 14, 1962, the Arizona Star reviewed her book with the headline “Silent Spring Makes Protest Too Hysterical.” The preceding month — in an article that assured readers that DDT was entirely harmless to humans — Time magazine had called Carson’s book “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic.” “Many scientists sympathize with Miss Carson’s . . . mystical attachment to the balance of nature,” the review allowed. “But they fear that her emotional and inaccurate outburst . . . may do harm.” Carson was a scientist, incidentally.

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