Men Explain Things to Me
patriarchy, of ancestry, of narrative—is made by erasure and exclusion.

    Eliminate your mother, then your two grandmothers, then your four great-grandmothers. Go back more generations and hundreds, then thousands disappear. Mothers vanish, and the fathers and mothers of those mothers. Ever more lives disappear as if unlived until you have narrowed a forest down to a tree, a web down to a line. This is what it takes to construct a linear narrative of blood or influence or meaning. I used to see it in art history all the time, when we were told that Picasso begat Pollock and Pollock begat Warhol and so it went, as though artists were influenced only by other artists. Decades ago, the Los Angeles artist Robert Irwin famously dumped a New York art critic on the side of the freeway after the latter refused to recognize the artistry of a young car customizer making hot rods. Irwin had been a car customizer himself, and hot-rod culture had influenced him deeply. I remember a contemporary artist who was more polite but as upset as Irwin when she was saddled with a catalogue essay that gave her a paternalistic pedigree, claiming she was straight out of Kurt Schwitters and John Heartfield. She knew she came out of hands-on work, out of weaving and all the practical acts of making, out of cumulative gestures that had fascinated her since bricklayers came to her home when she was a child. Everyone is influenced by those things that precede formal education, that come out of the blue and out of everyday life. Those excluded influences I call the grandmothers.

    There are other ways women have been made to disappear. There is the business of naming. In some cultures women keep their names, but in most their children take the father’s name, and in the English-speaking world until very recently, married women were addressed by their husbands’ names, prefaced by Mrs . You stopped, for example, being Charlotte Brontë and became Mrs. Arthur Nicholls. Names erased a woman’s genealogy and even her existence. This corresponded to English law, as Blackstone enunciated it in 1765:
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover , she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a femme-covert . . . or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron , or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture . For this reason, a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence.
    He covered her like a sheet, like a shroud, like a screen. She had no separate existence.

    There are so many forms of female nonexistence. Early in the war in Afghanistan, the New York Times Sunday magazine ran a cover story on the country. The big image at the head of the story was supposed to show a family, but I saw only a man and children, until I realized with astonishment that what I had taken for drapery or furniture was a fully veiled woman. She had disappeared from view, and whatever all the other arguments may be about veils and burkas, they make people literally disappear. Veils go a long way back. They existed in Assyria more than three thousand years ago, when there were two kinds of women, respectable wives and widows who had to wear veils, and prostitutes and slave girls who were forbidden to do so. The veil was a kind of wall of privacy, the marker of a woman for one man, a portable architecture of confinement. Less portable kinds of architecture kept women confined to houses, to the domestic sphere of housework and childrearing, and so out of public life and incapable of free circulation. In so many societies, women have been confined to the house to control their erotic energies, necessary in a patrilineal

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