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Remembering Norah Vincent
The self-made woman who thought no one's thoughts but her own
When I was 18 years old, I was looking for some new books to read, and I came across an interesting title by Norah Vincent, Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back Again.
Here is the publisher’s description:
For more than a year and a half Vincent ventured into the world as Ned, with an ever-present five o'clock shadow and a crew cut--a perfect disguise that enabled her to observe the world of men as an insider. With her buddies on the bowling league she enjoyed the rough and rewarding embrace of male camaraderie; a stint in a high-octane sales job taught her the gut-wrenching pressures endured by men who would do anything to succeed; she frequented sex clubs, dated women hungry for love but bitter about men, and infiltrated all-male communities including a men's therapy group and even a monastery. She ended her journey astounded--and exhausted--by the rigid codes and rituals of masculinity.
Vincent passed successfully as a man, though most people suspected her male alter ego was gay. She stood 5’10”, wore men’s size 11 shoes, sported a flattop cut, painted stubble on her chin, weight-trained to bulk up her upper body, bound her breasts with a tight sports bra, and worked with a vocal coach at the Juilliard School to lower her voice. She even stuffed a jockstrap!
For those interested, this 20/20 segment offers an overview of her experience:
A prolific writer, Vincent is also known for the book Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin, and she was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, The Advocate, The Village Voice, and Salon. Her writing appeared in numerous other publications.
Vincent was a lesbian, a contrarian, a libertarian, and an avowed critic of postmodernism. A woman after my own heart.
“There should be no ideas that cannot be expressed,” she told The New York Times. “If you are truly liberal you are going to allow a plethora of ideas.”
I never actually got around to purchasing Self Made Man, but the description and the idea alone stuck with me pretty much from that moment forward.
(Side note: I have, just now, while writing this sentence, ordered the book, and I can’t wait to finally give it a read.)
It is hard to look back at your own history and objectively reflect on your mindset at a given point in time in a way that is detangled from influences that came after. However, I can fairly confidently say that, up to the point that I heard about Vincent’s book, I had never had a very strong us vs. them mindset when it came to relations between men and women. Essentially, I didn’t consider myself oppressed and I didn’t consider men to be my oppressors. This is why I instantly liked the idea of the book and wasn’t resistant to Vincent’s claim that she found men actually had it quite hard or, at least, that they didn’t have it easy.
Again, though I had only read a description, Vincent’s experiment and book, and her resulting conclusions, stuck with me and contributed to a sympathy for men that I was never quite able to shake—despite the encroachment of identity politics in my young adulthood and later trysts into radical feminist thought when I entered into the gender debate.
Don’t get me wrong (because I know people are bound to get me wrong), I consider myself very pro-woman, and I fight for women’s rights to single-sex spaces and services in the face of the threat posed by gender ideology.
I am acutely aware of the very real harms perpetrated by men against women. I know the statistics. I recognize the atrocities of male violence. And I know that gender ideology is being driven by some very bad men indeed.
(People like to point the finger at feminism and women in general, and yes, I know that far too many women and feminists are carrying water for this movement. But I believe they are mainly carrying that water for a small number of narcissistic and fetishistic men.)
But all of this makes me appreciate the good men. And not even the particularly good men—just the everyday men. They are human, just like women are, and women can go bad too, we just don’t tend to be as physically dangerous when we do.
Vincent’s foray into manhood flipped her previously held assumptions about the opposite sex upside down, leaving her with the conclusion that “men have different problems than women have, but they don’t have it better.”
However, the experience took a mental toll. As a New York Times obituary about the writer explains:
Being Ned had worn Ms. Vincent down; she felt alienated and disassociated, and after the retreat she checked herself into a hospital for depression.
She was suffering, she wrote, for the same reason that many of the men she met were suffering: Their assigned gender roles, she found, were suffocating them and alienating them from themselves.
Vincent’s next book, Voluntary Madness, explored her experiences as an inpatient at three different institutions.
While I never forgot about Self-Made Man, I had not followed Vincent over the years at all. I definitely forgot her name after reading it once all that time ago.
That was until, earlier this year, a friend sent me a message asking if I’d heard of her. I went to her Wikipedia page and was excited to see this was the woman who had written that book that stayed with me all this time.
I was also sad to see that Vincent had died by assisted suicide in Switzerland on July 6, 2022, at the age of 53. It was disappointing that someone who I really felt I resonated with was no longer with us, especially considering how she’d done it.
While reading about her, I wondered what, if anything, she had to say about the gender debate, given her unique experience. I was actually pleasantly surprised to see that she’d been an early commentator on it.
In 1999, Vincent wrote an article for The Village Voice titled “Suddenly Not Susan,” which sparked a protest outside of the publication’s office. The article does not seem to be in The Village Voice archives, but I did find a piece about the protest:
About 50 people gathered in front of the Village Voice’s office on Monday, December 13, to protest a recent feature story about a woman who underwent a gender transformation to become a man. Specifically, they objected to the cover graphic of a Barbie doll with sewn-on breasts and a penis, use of female pronouns to refer to a transsexual man, and the “constant implication that a person is more real before gender transition than after transition.”
Among the protesters’ demands was that the publication only use pronouns “in sync with a person’s self-identity and presentation” in future pieces.
Thankfully, the incorrigible Vincent did not learn her lesson. In 2001, she wrote “Welcome to the Transsexual Age,” a short but blistering critique of “transsexuality” spurred by the announcement that San Francisco would now cover up to $50,000 for city employee “sex change operations and procedures.”
I encourage you to read it yourself, but here are some choice excerpts:
[Transsexuality] signifies the death of the self, the soul, that good old-fashioned indubitable “I” so beloved of Descartes, whose great adage “I think, therefore I am” has become an ontological joke on the order of “I tinker and there I am.”
It changes entirely what we mean when we say “Just be yourself.” Being yourself used to be metaphysical. It had nothing to do with what you wore or which set of genitals you had. It was sexless, and genderless, and classless. It just was, and always had been since the day you were born.
If you take seriously the idea that a person cannot be himself without the intervention of modern technology, then you have lost the notion of a self altogether. What you are left with is a literally constructed self—a thoroughly superficial identity that someone has built with a scalpel.
And this is a notion that has its roots in philosophies that are all too trendy in academia today, those very Foucaldian and Derridian philosophies I just mentioned. The ones that would have us believe that there is no such thing as objective reality, facts, or real people. Instead, there are just constructions, perceptions, and cultural norms that have nothing to do with such quaint anachronisms as God or the soul.
This is not fair, and should not be allowed to happen. Because there is a big difference between an equal-opportunity society in which people of all persuasions are allowed to pursue their own happiness—at their own expense—and an ideologically skewed culture in which special-interest groups are merely piggybacking on the latest trendy philosophies. And getting special treatment.
Vincent saw through the farce of gender ideology before most people were even aware of it—before it even became the society-wide “ideology” we are dealing with today.
For this and everything else, I respect her very much.
Vincent’s views on sex and gender were strong, clear, simple, and sorely needed today. In a 2022 article for Tablet, titled “Norah Vincent’s Gender Trouble,” James Kirchick offers an excellent exploration of these views.
He discusses that one of Vincent’s main takeaways from her time living as Ned was that men are “under constant surveillance, with dire penalties exacted for falling short.” She also believed that the worst of this scrutiny came from the fear of being perceived as effeminate.
Vincent’s response to this social trauma was to advocate an escape from the “straitjacket” of gender, to expand the possibilities of what it means to be a man or a woman. As a proudly butch lesbian, she spoke from personal experience. “I have always lived as my truest self somewhere on the boundary between masculine and feminine,” Vincent wrote. Despite her refusal to fit into a binary box, Vincent was fiercely protective of her femininity, her lesbianism, and her womanhood. She saw no contradiction in her masculine gender presentation and her female sex.
He contrasts this view with the direction our culture has chosen to take due to gender ideology:
In the years since Self-Made Man was published, so dramatically has our conversation about gender shifted, and so fearsome are the consequences for questioning the novel dogmas surrounding it, that the book reads like samizdat. While Vincent’s conclusion—that the oppressive conflation of sex and gender should be ruptured—was undoubtedly forward-thinking, today it would strike many progressives as retrograde. For those who fashion themselves insurgents on the newfangled cultural vanguard of the radical transgender movement, gender nonconformity no longer widens the broad spectrum of gender but narrows it by fusing gender expression with biological sex—defining effeminate men as women and masculine women as men.
It is a sad state of affairs that we have chosen this regressive view of sex and gender over Vincent’s own, which offers genuine inclusion and acceptance of people who don’t quite fit the mold.
I suspect there are places where Vincent and I would disagree or not quite see eye to eye—as any two human beings would. From looking into her for this piece, I got the sense that she attributed a lot of the ways men typically communicate and emote to socialization, whereas I tend to attribute male and female differences more to biology and evolutionary psychology (not to completely discount the reality and effect of socialization, however).
Then again, maybe I’d feel differently if I spent 18 months living as Evan. And maybe I’ll feel differently after finally reading her book (it’s on the way!).
I’m sad there is no chance to discuss any of this with Norah herself, or to see any new thoughts from her at all. It is bittersweet to have really only “discovered” her now, but I am still glad I did.
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