By Sue Kerr
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
My partner and I recently took a tour of the U.S. Brig Niagara in Lake Erie.
Our weekday group was about 15 people and I was probably the second youngest. I noticed how many of the men in our group were eager to talk over the tour guide and tell the rest of us about their own boats, nautical service, familiarity with all of the concepts from tying knots to identifying every anachronism in painstaking detail in case we missed the memo about historical accuracy. Oh, and they told jokes about their nagging wives.
It was a mansplaining festival. Wives were apologizing, using elbows, sighing loudly. Why do men assume we want to hear their opinions on every damn thing?
The Battle of Lake Erie featuring Admiral Perry is already very ‘manly’ in terms of who participated. The restoration of the ship was led by men. The museum is filled with almost no reference to women and one noticeably distinct section devoted to Black male participants.
It is as if the perspectives of the mothers, wives, and other women living in Erie deserve no representation. They certainly had voices and opinions.
To be fair, the current crew does include women, like the one who was working on the brig while we toured. She did not seem thrilled when our tour guide asked her to share her feelings about being a female crew member. The tour guide did not ask any of the male crew to disrupt their work to discuss gender equity issues.
Mansplaining isn’t a phenomanon reserved for boorish Tinder dates and drunk uncles. It is a systemic presence in the workplace; my partner was unphased by the tour extras because she deals with the behavior at work every day. I’m less tolerant, perhaps because I work from home and came from a female dominated industry.
If the museum and tour created space for the voices of others involved in the battle, perhaps they’d attract a different audience and remain relevant as their Baby Boomer supporters age out of active docent duty.
I’m not suggesting eliminating the traditional content, just streamlining it to create more room for representative stories. If I notice, trust me that the Millenials and Gen Y tourists will take note.
Later in our trip, we toured the historical lumber ghost towns of the Clarion River. Our guide was a 71-year-old cis, het, white man. He was awesome. He encouraged questions and didn’t shy away from tough questions from my social justice stance on historical representation. And he literally wrote the book (with his brother) on this topic.
Granted, we didn’t have company on the second tour. I wonder if any docent training program anywhere in the nation teaches white men how to nix the “wife jokes” as part of their duty to tell representative stories? Our Elk County guide talked about his ex-wife with respect and in appropriate context.
It seems utterly ridiculous to be sprawled in our Victorian B&B suite in the PA Wilds claiming to strike a blow for visibility. But this is reality and visibility starts with someone being willing to claim space. Because of the 300+ stories we’ve collected for the #AMPLIFY project, I know these queer voices are here now and deserve to be acknowledged.
Just like I know queer, female, Black, Brown, Indigenous and other voices were in the PA Wilds during the lumber boom and in Erie during the War of 1812.
For more than 300 years, Pennsylvania has had many cis het white male voices controlling historical narratives and current conversations. We can and should seriously invest in how women and non binary folks, Black and Brown people of color, Indigenous persons, youth, people with disabilities, queer folks and others who helped to shape this Commonwealth have been telling those same stories all these years.
It is important that all cis white het men continuously assess if they are getting out of the way to create space for marginalized voices. That can mean anything from organizing exhibits in museums to training docents and others to interact with the public.
We still live in a world where the opinions of a queer woman are preferably consumed in small doses, much like the experiences of Black men in the Battle of Lake Erie are confined to a corner exhibit, both to avoid overwhelming the frayed knots and authentic recreations in favor of the story versions we prefer.