Give Me My Smelling Salts, Ho! A Blast From The Past From April 2015
[And stop calling me Ho – SAH 2020]
I don’t make much secret of the fact that I grew up in an actual honest to goodness sexist society. And by sexist I mean one that believed that women were sort of second best when it came to human beings.
No, this wasn’t micro-aggression, but the actual, stated opinion of most people in the society, including women. Teachers thought nothing of saying in front of a class “this might be a little more difficult for you ladies, since it requires logical reasoning.” They expected, in a co-ed class, that men would be better than the women at just about anything involving academics. In craft class, women were shunted to sewing and such, and I was told that no, I couldn’t do carpentry because that was weird and unnatural.
I don’t think it’s the same now. EEC, and a determined campaign to make women “equal” – which is probably… Never mind. We’ll get to that.
Fortunately or unfortunately I have a really hard time staying told. What I mean is, the more they told me I was inferior and had to defer to the better male brains, the more I set out to prove to the guys that I could run circles around them, mentally speaking.
It always gave me great pleasure when, by the end of the year, the teachers looked to me, and not to whichever boy they’d decided was the prodigy when they asked a difficult question.
This wasn’t always easy, particularly since by culture I was expected to take a great deal of the housekeeping off mom’s hands, while most boys went home and had no other duties than to study. But I studied harder; I read more; and by gum I worked to be better.
So – is this an extended whine about discrimination?
Shrug. No. I don’t know if I would be me – pig headed and stubborn as some species of weed – if it weren’t for those “handicaps” thrown in my way. I don’t know if I’d ever have learned to work hard, either. You see, if I had been handed things on a plate, I don’t know if I’d ever have made an effort. I’m very lazy, after all.
And if I hadn’t fought to be admitted to the confraternity of “the best” in each class, I’d never have understood the strange comradery that can flourish between men and women, when the men know a woman has bested them at their game and earned her position among them, they – at least the decent ones – tend to treat her as an equal.
Now, there are downsides to this, and we’ll talk about it in a moment.
I imagine, though I have absolutely no backing for this, that I resemble, in spirit and experiences the feminists of the 40s and 50s, when the point was to prove you could be as good as a man, and when the sort of work required and (perhaps in the fifties) effective contraception made it possible for women to have equivalent professional lives.
At least what I’ve read from those time periods, women’s attitude seemed to be “We can do it. We can be better than men, work harder than men, take knocks like men. And we ain’t no wall flowers.”
There was the inherent belief that, yes, the world was biased, but it was up to us to prove we could make it despite the bias. This was my belief when I lived in Portugal too.
I realized things were different in the US – very different – when my American literature teacher, fresh off the plane, used “he” to refer to indeterminate gender in a class full of females, in my third year in college and then started apologizing and ritually abasing himself for his “sexism.” The class of 20 some budding linguists blinked at him and said “but that is the default pronoun for indeterminate gender in English!”
I’ve never seen a man so astonished. Which prepared me for what I call “the feminist war on language” through the late eighties and nineties in this country.
Though I might say nothing prepared me for the piece of strangeness that was “Herstory.” Seriously, women, learn philology and stop embarrassing people with vaginas. It was as stupid as when preachers use English to decide that there is some arcane meaning in the Bible. It’s as though they don’t realize languages evolve. Which begs the question of whether they understand societies change, or whether they live in an eternal now, but that’s a question for another time.
And then things got ever weirder. One started getting dinged for not using his/her in any correspondence of non-fiction.
It made me a little …. Uncomfortable. Both as a linguist and as a human being. Look, language is language. Language isn’t sexist because language isn’t anything. Yes, there are fossilized meanings and fossilized attitudes in language, but they don’t “intend” or “mean” anything beyond well, the explicit meaning.
This is hard to explain, but suffice it to say half of my teaching career (teaching ESL mostly, but also French and briefly German) was spent saying “there is no why in language.” I.e. don’t ask me why “bread” is “bread” in English but “pao” in Portuguese. I don’t mean there is no explanation of how those words came to be used. Of course there is. Different invading people, different pervading cultures, etc. That’s what philology does and it’s fun for a winter’s night. (Okay, so I have a weird idea of fun.) BUT it’s not a LOGICAL reason. A lot of my students would say stuff like “but bread makes no sense. It doesn’t sound like the thing.”
I think the war on “he” as the default for indeterminate is the same kind of thought. “But it could be a he or a she. So we should mention both. Even if it just makes sentences really awkward.”
That was only part of what made me uncomfortable, though. What really bothered me was this sense that the woman (and it was always women) enforcing the he/she had this need to be noticed, even in a sentence that didn’t refer to them. It was as though they were saying “AND a WOMAN too.” (There are any number of oral story telling techniques that do just this, so you’ll say something like “Five hundred men, three elephants, and the flea in the captain’s beard.” That was sort of the feeling I got.)
Still, you know, language evolves with culture, and I figure this was part of it and just wished they’d settled for something other than he/she or a “they” that broke the number concordance. (Yes, I know Shakespeare did it. He did all manner of foolish things, as well as brilliant ones.) I thought even “it” would be better.
But the disturbing trend continued to grow. Bookstores started labeling history sections “herstory” with no irony whatsoever. College educated women honest to goodness thought there had been as many female medieval fighters as male and there was a vast conspiracy to hide this. (Where women were supposed to come up with the upper body strength for those weapons I don’t know. Yeah, some managed it. Maybe one in a thousand.) A vast conspiracy involving millions of people through the ages. A conspiracy of which we had no record. A conspiracy that never once broke ranks.
Then there was the sisterhood thing. You know, where every and any woman is supposed to understand me better than a man. That was jaw-dropping. I mean, I’m supposed to have more in common with Mary who does tatting for a living in some little village in England than with, oh, Larry, say, who writes for the same house I do in America.
And there was the “men are afraid of you” thing that was brought up as to why I didn’t get along with my boss when I was a lecturer in college. (It probably had more to do with the fact I didn’t intend to make a career of it, and wasn’t going to jump through his hoops. Oh, also, I was a smart-mouthed kid with no social sense.) This is used to explain any man not liking any woman nowadays and particularly any man criticizing a woman’s performance of her job.
But when I first realized things had gone off the rails was when a professor, in a well reported snit, ran out of a lecture hall, crying and threatening to throw up because a college president mentioned statistics and the relative, statistical position of women in intellectual fields and said it was the same as the relative IQ curve. That is, that women mostly occupy the middle ranks, while men claim more geniuses and more morons. This is a statistical fact. It doesn’t mean any woman is or isn’t a genius or a moron (you have to test the woman for that) but as a statistical fact it explains some of the distribution of women we see in intellectual and STEM work. (It also tends to mean those women at the top are good, as they fought all sorts of assumptions to get there.)
THIS – this statistical fact – caused an educated woman to feel personally insulted.
I thought this was insane, and perhaps she was off her meds. But the incidents just kept coming; too many for me to remember much less mention.
The ones that come to mind, though, are the dongle thing and the shirtstorm.
The dongle thing is where a woman heard two geeks talk about dongles and assumed a sexual meaning. Now, the descriptions of the actual event are so muddled, I don’t know which was true. It is entirely possible that the guys were just talking about dongles, and she read a dirty meaning into their words. Or it’s possible that they were making veiled dirty jokes.
Here is the thing: neither of them was about her. What I mean is, men have a different sense of humor than women. Any woman who’s fought her way to the top of a male dominated field, who finds herself considered one of the guys learns this very quickly. And the wise woman – you know, one of those that JUST wants to prove she’s good enough? – turns a deaf ear to it. (Or joins in, depending on personality. But if you want to continue pretending to yourself and others that you’re a lady, you just don’t hear those things. You learn to filter them out.) Guys do the same in a female intensive grouping. Trust me, the things we think are funny and joke about are just as shockingly bizarre and offensive to normal males. Both my gay and straight male friends have on occasion, hearing me talk to a female friend, said the equivalent of “stop. You’re tearing my illusions apart.”
However, the woman who overheard the talk knew it was all about her. (Even though I haven’t found anything saying that it was directed at or even referring to her.) She overheard this talk, and it was bad talk, and it made her feel uncomfortable. And so she set out to destroy the men’s careers. Because every place should be made safe for a gentlewoman of delicate sensibilities to wander through with impunity and without some word – even one she misunderstood – sullying her virgin-like ears.
Shirtstorm was more of the same. Rose Eveleth, Vagina Vigilante, might not know much about probes or comets, or have much interest in them. One gets a feeling in her mind aerospace is that icky thing that sweaty, nerdy boys do. So, forced to cover it (or snatching it up as a prize assignment) for her paper, she paid attention to the one important thing in the world: herself. And since she’s female, she projected her prejudices onto all other females, and decided women everywhere would be put off science by a man’s shirt decorated with “space pinups.” A shirt made by a woman. A shirt worn amid a team whose leader was a woman who saw nothing wrong with it. But Vagina Vigilante was on the job! One gets the feeling she didn’t do very well at science, and now she had a REASON. It was the sexism of the field, manifest in a shirt.
Which totally justified making a rocket scientist cry on the day of his greatest triumph. After all, people like him had ruined her life, right?
But it gets worse than that – there was an entire campus filled with supposedly educated (ah!) women terrorized by the statue of a sleep walking man.
And then there’s the ever-elastic definition of “sexual assault” which – I’m not making this up – can now be ratcheted down to “Looked at me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable” or, for that matter “failed to sexually assault me.” Oh, sorry, that last was the definition of racism. Some Palestinian woman looked at rape statistics and found that Israeli women are raped by Palestinian men in much higher numbers than Palestinian women are raped by Israeli men, and immediately concluded this is because Israelis are racist. It beggars the mind.
Another thing that beggars the mind is the progressive image of women as great warriors. You know, in all the movies and half the books (often without supernatural explanation) a 90 lb chick can beat 300 lb men. And women were always great fighters throughout the ages. And, and, and…
And yet, women are peaceful – peaceful, d*mn it. This is why “peaceful planet of women” is a trope on tv tropes. Not just a trope, but a dead horse one.
Attempts to square that circle have included the explanation that women are only violent because patriarchy. There needs be nothing else said because in this context, and with apologies to the ponies, Patriarchy Is Magic. Honorable mention on trying to square the circle must go to Law and Order’s attempted episode on Gamer Gate where the game the woman designer had written was about Peaceful Amazon Warriors.
An episode in which my younger son accidentally touched a girl on the behind – in 3rd grade, when Mr. Hormone hadn’t visited yet and he had no clue behinds had anything to do with sex or being sexy – and the school tried to charge him with sexual harassment (Which stopped cold when I threatened to write about it for various mags and make them a laughing stock) gave me some insight into why women are reacting this way.
It’s not all their fault, no.
That little girl had it far worse than my son. Because you see, for having been touched by a rather innocent little boy, who was reaching into a group and trying to get her attention (to play “the space game” which was sort of a LARP in which they were in a spaceship in an alien planet. Hey, he’s mine.) this girl was put in COUNSELING sessions and was told that her life would never be the same, because she’d been – gasp – sexually assaulted.
I lost touch with the kids from that class, and don’t know if she still thinks she was victimized, but let’s say she was a little strange for months after the incident.
Of course, she was actually bureaucratically assaulted.
You see, the directive to make the sexes equal is being applied top down by a thousand little bureaucracies, none of them very sure how to accomplish this. They’re also in general trying to force the sexes to be equal, which is impossible, instead of equal before the law, which is desirable. This further muddles their attempts, particularly when you throw in the lovely academic theory most of them imbibe that “gender is a construct.” And gender might be, but whether your genes are xx or xy still affects your upper body strength (men have more), your endurance of pain (women have more) and several other things you can’t make equal by declaring it so.
The problem is bureaucracies are stupid. They can’t see finer shades such as “allow exceptional individuals to be wherever they belong” or “just let people be people.” No, they hear “make women and men equal and by gum, they’re going to do it if it requires being at war with reality. It’s kind of like performing brain surgery on your sofa, using a rusty saw and a soup spoon. Even with the best of intentions, you’re going to do more harm than good.
Now, do I think it was okay for the culture to be as it was in Portugal, where I was assumed to be an idiot because I lacked 250grams between my legs? Oh, heck no. But I also don’t want a culture where little girls are mollycoddled and little boys berated both in compensation/punishment for things that happened before their grandparents were born.
For one, it makes girls into sissies. For another it makes a lot of men give up on society.
And the girls into sissies thing is dangerous. Women who’ve been mollycoddled all their lives will think that anything is an attack or an aggression. Like, you know, being called Ladies. Or pinup shirts.
This means, more and more, as the younger generations come in, professional and academic environments with women become mine fields for men and histrionic opportunities for women.
And sooner or later, looking at our throwing up, swooning, crying, trigger-warned, peaceful amazon warriors, someone is going to say “you know, women are too fragile for the workaday world. Let’s put them in burkas and lock them up in purdah.” And then it will all be needed to do over again, the fight to let those women who can and will compete do so.
On behalf of my future great great great granddaughter whom I don’t want to have to endure that kind of things, stop this feminist charging forward to the fainting couch and the smelling salts, like some Victorian maiden that never actually existed.
Stop trusting what the bureaucracy tells you. Men are not the enemy. Most men welcome women who can work with them as equals. Yeah, they’ll still try to protect you and avenge you, because they, the same as you, have instincts. An unfortunate side effect of having physical bodies.
Accept them as they are so they can accept you as you are. Demand their best behavior, but don’t demand they stop being men. And don’t make them walk on eggshells around you. The power might feel good but in the end it betrays you, because it means you’ll never belong as a co-worker.
Oh, and fight the war for equality on the cultural level.
If we took over a Middle Eastern country tomorrow we could (and should) fix the laws, so women are the same as men before the law. But we couldn’t fix the culture the same way. If we made laws giving women job preferences, or telling men what they could or couldn’t do around women, what we’d do in the end is what’s happening here: women who are used to being protected/infantilized/subjugated by men transfer that relationship of power by putting all their trust to government.
And since government is force, it’s more abusive than any husband. And the end result will be subjugation.
Fight the culture war now. So your descendants don’t have to fight worse ones. Humans are not widgets and bureaucracy is stupid.
Make your own judgements, and tell bureaucrats and their fainting maidens coterie to go smell some salts.