by BETTINA ARNDT – THE crowd in the open-air tourist bus gazed up at the massive granite wall towering over us in the Yosemite Valley.
This was El Capitan, the setting for the movie Free Solo’s nail-biting documentary of Alex Honnold’s infamous climb.
The bubbly female ranger working as our tour guide had a clear agenda for outlining the history of climbing this imposing rock face.
Her attention was focused on the climber who, in 1993, became the first person to free climb the tough “Nose” route of El Capitan.
With great fanfare, the ranger announced that the climber was a woman –the Californian sports climber Lynn Hill. The ranger’s excitement at this announcement prompted cheers from the females in our midst.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the remarkable achievement of this inspiring athlete, but the ranger made annoyingly little effort to put Lynn Hill’s historic climb into a broader context – namely, the astonishing efforts of male climbers who’ve tackled the same climb since then.
Like Alex Honnold, who remains the only person to do the climb “free solo”, gripping to the face like Spiderman using none of the ropes or protective gear that assisted Hill.
Honnold and Tommy Caldwell have climbed El Capitan in less than two hours – compared to the fastest woman doing a free climb up the face, Emily Harrington, who managed it in a single day.
Yes, women are doing remarkably well, but their accomplishments pale compared to the very top male climbers.
Remember British poet Samuel Johnson’s famous observation of Quaker women preachers in 1763: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well: but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
We are so stuck on the miracle of women aping dogs walking on hind legs that woe betide anyone who points out that even when women do it well, sometimes men still do it better.
Celebratory claims about women’s achievements are becoming the only permitted public discourse, with women’s greatness constantly reinforced and emphasised.
It’s utterly tedious having to put up with the constant crowing about women’s triumphs but even more maddening when bit players become the story simply for being a women.
On a previous trip to California, I was astonished when our tour of the spectacular Hearst Castle paid almost no attention to the extraordinary career of the man who made it all possible – newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.
Most of the gushing commentary was focused on the female architect, Julia Morgan, responsible for the castle design.
With feminists having succeeded so effectively in elevating women’s place in the world, you might have hoped we could afford a little perspective, an acknowledgement that women are excelling whilst admitting there’s still territory where men will continue to shine.
Remember six years ago when Google fired James Damore for writing a memo asserting women are underrepresented in the technology industry because “preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes”.
After that kerfuffle, tech industries are making strenuous efforts to improve female representation in their companies.
An Apple boss recently boasted of 35 per cent female staff across America but didn’t mention that most of the increased female participation is in sales, admin, or HR.
Most of the engineers who produce the goods that make the company so profitable are still 80 per cent nerdy young men – like my nephew.
My recent visit to California was to attend the wedding of this brilliant relative who spends his days working with his Silicon Valley team to invent incredible new products.
Funnily enough, I heard from one of his elderly relatives at the wedding reception that he’d been part of the team who’d developed the alarm system in her Apple watch that called 911 when she had a fall, leading to the ambulance taking her to hospital.
No-one now dares to point out that for all the efforts to recruit more women into STEM careers, the numbers making it into the engine room of these world-leading industries have barely changed over the past decade.
It makes me wonder if all the cheering and enthusiasm for women’s achievements masks feminist disappointment in the stubbornly gendered reality – there are areas in life mainly men remain destined to excel.
There was a very cheeky article published in The Spectator magazine eight years ago entitled “There’s a good reason why there are no great female composers”.
The author, Damian Thompson, was responding to a push to change the music syllabus to include female composers. He dared to suggest it is important to ask how good the music of female composers is compared to that of men.
He declared the first movement of Lara Schumann’s concerto “a dud”, Fanny Mendelssohn’s G Minor Piano Sonata as “bloody awful” and Judith Weir’s stark scores as sounding “as if crucial instrumental parts have gone missing”.
Thompson rightly points out that “if there are no great women composers, that’s because creative geniuses are rare and, in the past, so few women wrote music”.
But he concludes, “we are stuck in a situation where the barriers to women becoming composers have been removed, but they’re still honoured for being women”.
That’s the real point. Must we continue to honour women composers simply for the novelty of them doing this work?
To me, this is all rather close to home because my partner is a double bass player in a community orchestra, and one of the many thrills in our almost decade-long relationship has been to gain a real appreciation of classical music through attending their concerts.
At least, that is what used to happen.
Now the wonderful classical pieces are under threat of being frozen out of the programming, to be replaced by all manner of diverse offerings, including didgeridoo and smoking ceremonies.
Beaming female composers delight in having their undistinguished and indistinguishable pieces performed by a full orchestra.
I can’t help but wonder how many in that grey-haired audience are, like me, sitting there yearning for the great music of the past that used to provide such a thrill.
I’m pushing for the orchestra to put together some Dead White Male concerts – celebrating the music of the great composers whose music has delighted audiences for century after century.PC