Have you ever been identified as a harlot?
It has been a year of firsts. It is the first time I have had the nerve to travel extensively alone. I have been back and forth across the country three times, to bird and to work from specimens at a number of institutions. I made my first trips to bird Central America. It is the first year I have spent learning how to draw birds. I can now add the first time I have knowingly been called a harlot.
At the most recent AOU (American Ornithologists’ Union) meeting, a member of one of our most esteemed ornithological institutions savored a moment of gossip, saying “Have you heard about *** ***? Apparently he has hooked up with a harlot.”
That harlot would be me, a harlot who ostensibly thought she was dating someone, and who, had she realized she was a harlot, may have thought to ask to get paid for the experience, because then she might have some money to fix her ailing car. Or perhaps, since harlot is a word with nuances, rife with assumption and derision, she should have been dutifully earning the moniker pro gratis.
There is a larger point to this, beyond a moment of blithe condescension that is best glossed over and forgotten. I stand here, a woman traveling alone, a woman who has traveled with many lovely and generous men (and no, neither slept with nor been paid by them). I have been routinely associated only through the reputations of the men I have birded with. My name has been forgotten countless times, or misremembered egregiously, only to be recalled as “Oh, you were the girl with *** or ###.” I have been pushed into boat railings and badly bruised by male photographers mowing over me to get to a shot. I have stood quietly in groups of men asking each other what they do and what they are working on, wondering if anyone would ask the same of me. I have alternately stood up for myself and breathed small sighs of resignation. I am a competitive and intelligent harlot, like many others, burdened with advanced degrees and time spent teaching at excellent higher institutions.
I stand here, with a small army of presumed Hester Prynnes behind me, wearing their binoculars in lieu of a letter, and I call you out, in the names of sexism, chauvinism, and tawdry pettiness. You know who you are. You know it is not just about one comment, one reputation. Is there really any question why there are so few young and youngish women in the birding world?