Out Standing in the Field

I had to prep myself to read this. Brace myself. Prepare myself. This book was angering. I was angry for myself and angry for author Sandra Perron. I was angry for a lot of women, actually.

Author Sandra Perron is an amazing person with a powerful story. She is Canada’s first female infantry officer. She is as tough as all get out, she’s smart, she’s strong, she was a super talented soldier (what a weird thing to say) and she has amazing hair. I’m just going to say it, even while acknowledging it’s not relevant. Women can be more than one thing. They can go on peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and have great hair (maybe not at the same time).

Perron was is a trailblazer. She chronicles her time in the Canadian Armed Forces in Out Standing in the Field. It’s brutal. I will 100 per cent buy that training for war is brutal for everyone. Nice of them to amp it up for Perron because she’s a woman. Some of it was a nuisance: other soldiers stealing her beret, or ripping off her regimental patches, or throwing acorns at her to keep her awake when she desperately needed to sleep. Some of it was worse: she was raped early in her career, her peers kept information from her so she’d be late for missions and training exercises, they’d ignore her instructions, or try to sabotage her missions by tying her up or cutting off communications on purpose. Someone wrote Fuck Me on some of her gear, and she didn’t notice until she removed it. Men in her section hid her equipment (gun included). Some men straight up told her she didn’t belong—even if she outperformed them.

What woman hasn’t heard: “it’s nothing personal, but women don’t belong here (fill in with field of your choice).” Perron heard it. She had the added burden of believing she had to overturn every stereotype and limitation, because she was the first female infantry officer. And she had her own doubts about herself.

She wasn’t without her supporters. She remembers the advice of her uncle: ““They’re not trying to dominate the weak,” he’d said. “They are trying to crush the strong and you pose a threat by who you are, and what you represent.””

There were some colleagues and superior officers behind her too. She earned a reputation for toughness after being tied to a tree barefoot in the snow for 10 hours. Here’s the famous, at least by Canadian standards, photo.

But it wasn’t enough to counterbalance the rest of it. She left the Van Doos after someone attempted to demote her with a flimsy excuse.

I went to Perron’s event at the 2017 writers fest. She was poised, a careful speaker and she said she wasn’t angry anymore about the things that happened. I’m not sure how you get to not angry. I’m still angry about things that were far less dangerous and debasing than most of what Perron went through. But that’s the thing about sexism and marginalization—it doesn’t matter how small it seems. It’s cumulative and it takes away people’s self worth. It makes it hard for you to defend yourself. After awhile, abuse seems normal. It happened to Perron—it took years for her to see her experience for what it was. That happens to a lot of people.  

Perron’s writing is direct and clear, much like I imagine she is in real life. She’s not without a sense of humour either. She writes, “I was haunted by comments I’d heard over and over again … “Women are a distraction. Women will make men go gaga and do stupid things. Women will cause men to risk their lives to save theirs.” The first two of these assumptions were certainly proving to be true. The men … were distracted by the women, and they were most certainly doing stupid things.”

Sounds like their problem to me.

Sandra Perron was at Event 49 (Still Out Standing) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.


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