Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that perhaps all this sturm und drang regarding the proper place of feminist ideals within the skeptical movement is just the rabble-rousing of an angry fringe. It’s not really insightful to suggest that the bulk of skeptics–the true skeptics, who are very concerned with accomplishing skeptical goals–find the all the hullabaloo about “calling out” sexism and “hijacking the movement” with “personal grudges” and generally “behaving like spoiled children who don’t know how good they have it in this world” to be a huge distraction–HUGE!–that prevents them from getting their skeptical work done. It’s definitely been suggested explicitly to me that I’m making mountains out of molehills, and I don’t speak for all women in the skeptical movement and that my Handy Guide isn’t very applicable to the skeptical community because it presents my specific beefs about what I personally don’t like as universal issues, and that the best thing for skeptics to do is let me ramble on without engaging me until I wear myself out, and then just sweep it all into the dustbin.

These arguments could be making some very good points. It is entirely possible that my quirky sense of injustice is unique to me and has no bearing on anything else. I’m just finding trouble where I want to, out of boredom or delusion or a highly Westernized sense of middle class woman entitlement or plain old cantankerousness, and if there are so many fewer active women in the skeptical movement than men, it’s for reasons entirely different than the ones I give that require solutions entirely different than the ones I suggest. Such as Ladybrains! and Who cares what the gender balance is? I care about ideas!



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Edited by S. T. Joshi

Long Story Short: This book is a good primer for someone who has never encountered the kinds of writings about how women were unfit for public life, but it lacks context and it does not stretch far enough into the present day.

Why I Chose This Book: I was browsing the Prometheus catalog (a good source for books about skepticism) and the cover art caught my eye. I’ve encountered a lot of people online who really have no idea just how formally and officially prejudice against women has been constructed in academic and cultural spheres or for how long, and thought it would fit in well with the purpose of this blog.

The Book’s Strengths: This book is all primary sources. The editor has collected essays about the place and purpose of women from basically American and British sources, across a good stretch of decades, from men and women authors, and presents a pretty thorough picture of how ideas about women’s supposed limitations informed public opinions and policies. People like to think they know how badly women have been maligned, and these selections are most likely worse than the average reader suspects. It definitely sets the stage for what feminists have been so angry about and have been fighting about, and taken as a group it can shed light on how such arbitrary and ideological notions about Why Women X can seem so much like nature and logical consequences.


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I’m about to confirm everything you’ve suspected all along: Yes, there is a feminist agenda–in fact, more than one. Feminists rally around the idea of overturning social and cultural institutions and mores to establish a new kind of political hierarchy and redistribute power and it’s theoretical and there are college departments and journals dedicated to it, and people write books and manifestos trying wake women up to their oppression and they employ the language of philosophy and call for power and fight the system and they are very, very angry at how humans have been going about their business for the past several millennia and they are as mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it anymore, and some of them would riot in the streets and take prisoners if they thought that was the only way to achieve their goals. And those are just the people with a regular feminist agenda. There is a radical feminist agenda, too, and they are even angrier and willing to make even fewer compromises and it is scary to think about what would happen if they got their way because society would function in a completely different way with a totally open future and we’d all feel pretty aimless and insecure for a while, and nobody likes that, especially when the billions of people around you are feeling the same way.

So it’s perfectly reasonable to get riled up a bit if you suspect that someone is trying to push a feminist agenda, because they are trying to rile people up; that is the goal. I mean, they are promoting a course of action that would result in civil unrest, and if you are getting defense about that person pushing the feminist agenda and feel like you should fight back it’s probably because the feminist agenda is just one fightin’ word after another. They are picking a fight. Your instincts are correct.

But you know what? The chances of you accidentally encountering someone actually pushing a real feminist agenda, much less a radical feminist agenda, are pretty small. Most people aren’t revolutionaries, even at the philosophical or theoretical level. Sure, feminists and radical feminists are easy enough to find online and in public spaces, but you have to seek them out, and they aren’t usually trying to lead you on until they find an opening and then suddenly infodump all over you. You’re not going to be having a conversation about dairy products or a television show and suddenly end up defending your way of life against a feminist agenda. It’s mostly the kind of topic that comes up formally, like at a lecture or in an article or at some conference or in some class.

Despite the infrequency, when women point out how the skeptical movement is structured–deliberately or out of inertia–to marginalize them, or how they are not treated with the same respect as men are (and we can go over all the ways that women are not treated with the same respect another time), it’s not long before someone accuses them of pushing their feminist agenda. This is unfair in two ways: 1) So what if they are pushing an agenda? They have ideas and plans for change. That’s what it’s called. 2) The accusation shows an ignorance about what a feminist agenda is. It’s a good word to phrase to use, though, linked as it is with extremism and emotionalism, and can efficiently deflect the conversation from what the women are actually talking about. Which is not a feminist agenda.

Noanodyne at the blog, No Anodyne, addresses the confusion about what constitutes a feminist agenda and what does not. (And all that business upstream in this post about rioting in the streets and taking prisoners is from me–it’s not something I picked up from that blog, at least not from the parts that I have read. Just an FYI.) The article, “Taking Back Feminism–A Manifesto,” addresses the difference between working towards equality and being a feminist. Consider this:

Noticing and calling attention to the fact that some men treat some women badly does not make you a feminist. That’s a mere baseline for being considered a decent human being. Living free of every type of abuse is a human right and all humans should have that right and support that right.

Understanding that the continuum from sex discrimination all the way through sexual harassment harms women’s access to economic equality does not make you a feminist. That’s a mere baseline for bring considered a decent human being. Economic fairness and justice are human rights and all humans should have them and support those rights.

Noticing instances of sexism, even calling them out, doesn’t make you a feminist. That’s a mere baseline for being considered a decent human being. Being free of being singled out for maltreatment, debasement, or dismissal because of a recognizable trait is a human right and all humans should have that right and support that right.

Sound like something you’ve heard skeptical women complain about? Like those numbers for women in science and technology fields? Or being hit on in elevators? Or enduring “chilly climates”? When women point them out, and demand outreach programs to balance representation between men and women? And insist that it’s a problem that needs fixing? That’s not pushing a feminist agenda. That’s claiming the right for full human treatment. They want the mere baseline of consideration as a decent human being. If it bothers you that women are demanding full status, you would probably benefit from spending some time with that reaction (as they like to say in the self-help books) instead of blaming the women for pushing a feminist agenda at you. It’s a point to ponder, not to protest.

If you are getting uncomfortable, it’s probably because you are embarrassed that things are as bad as they are, or maybe feeling a little ashamed for having contributed (or benefited)–even just as an enabler–to the inequity, or maybe you’re just angry because woman aren’t behaving the way you prefer them to behave (and that’s your call to make!), or you’re irritated by being confused and need some time to sort your thoughts out. It’s never fun to expose a seedy underbelly, and there’s enough anxiety already about how the general public views skepticism and which is multiplied when you think of the bad PR that the movement could garner if enough women make a stink about these things. There are a lot of reasons to not like it when women talk about their problems with the skeptical movement, but you’ve got to know why you don’t like it. Dismissing it as a feminist agenda and moving onto other topics is just sticking your head into the sand. It’s also just wrong.

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This post also appears as part of Transatlantic Blonde’s Feminist Friday series. Follow the link below for more posts!

This is a link to the Feminist Friday hosting blog. Click it.

What do the words “twat” and “dick” have in common? They are both gendered insults–words used to insult another person by referring specifically to genitalia (usually via a slang word), and which also includes the word “bitch.”* Gendered insults are so prevalent in the culture that they have been completely normalized and people often don’t even notice when they are using them, but “being completely normalized” is not equivalent to “unsexist,” and if you’re trying to create an environment within the skeptical community that is more welcoming to women (for the purpose of getting more women actively involved in skepticism), then you are going to have to break the habit.

*”Douche” is gendered and an insult, but it’s offensiveness to women is controversial. Some people claim that it implies vaginas are stinky and it is insulting because it makes the vagina’s natural state seem bad; some people claim that it’s a proven scam and thus it’s insulting because of its scamminess and thus isn’t gendered. I am in the camp that it’s a gendered insult and thus a no-no, but it’s not a hill I’d die on, and I can’t believe I’ve actually written this many sentences about it. And by this many sentences I mean three.

Explaining why gendered insults is sexist is confusing to a lot of people, partly because issues of politeness and decorum get mixed up in it. There are many different slang terms for genitalia which run the gamut from raunchy to euphemistic, and the usage of some of those terms is completely unremarkable and the usage of others is considered the worst word ever. Furthermore, what is considered unacceptable among one group of people might be considered positively literary among another, and there are no hard and fast rules regarding individual words.  What I’m going to do is break down the three issues regarding gendered insults that cause the most confusing first, and then explain why you should stop using them if you want to be welcoming to women after.

It’s not about being prudish.

You could be in a biology class discussing the reproductive system, and pull out the C-word to answer a question about female anatomical structure. Is that sexist? No. It’s unprofessional (because you aren’t calling things in a science class by their scientific names) and it might get you in trouble with your teacher (depending on school rules and the teacher’s tolerance for vulgarity and/or why you decided on that particular word choice), but it is not sexism. Saying “cunt” when you are actually talking about female genitalia does not create an environment that is hostile to women. It creates an environment that is hostile to people who don’t like vulgarity. I’m not going to say that sexism might not be behind why some person chooses that word over others, but it’s not sexism.

It’s not about being a hypocrite.

Gendered insults are insulting. Period. It doesn’t matter if you are throwing around words like “pussy” and “twat” or “dick” and “prick”–an insult is an insult and whether you are male or female using words that refer to male or female genitalia, you are being rude. Period. Gendered insults are equally rude. It’s not nice to insult people (even if they have done something mean or bad), and if you are at the point where you are hurling insults at another person, male or female, you are being unmannerly. It is a breach of etiquette. If there’s a spectrum of insults, gendered insults are probably on the boorish side (because of their association with sex), but there are lots of other insults there. If your skeptical community is a place where lots of people use lots of insults, it’s not very welcoming to anyone.

It is about the balance of power, and demeaning women.

Vulgarity and rudeness aside, there is a special barb to female gendered insults (directed at men or women) that perpetrates a culture of hostility to women, for reasons that are historical and sociological, and very well entrenched. The political effect of female gendered insults is far greater than the political effect of male gendered insults, for two reasons:

1. Female gendered insults remind women that traditionally their role is to provide sex and offspring to males. They portray “woman” and “vagina”  as interchangeable, and the global culture right now is one with high sexual objectification of women and very low political agency of women. Calling a woman a “cunt” or “twat” or “bitch” reduces her to the parts of her body that men have found useful throughout the millennia. Calling a woman a “vagina” may be more scientific or polite, but it accomplishes the same thing. Calling a man by these terms is an insult to women because it acknowledges the power differential; it insults him by putting him in the lower class and insults women by labeling them the lower class.

2. Male gendered insults do not carry any of the historic and political baggage that female gendered insults do. (Pulling something out of the air about goddess cultures or some historical matriarchy is not going to be a very good argument about the state of the world then and now, so save your breath.) Furthermore, “male” is “normal.” Male is the default assumption for just about everything, and so a male gendered insult is no worse than a non-gendered insult like “asshole” or “bag of hammers.” No one is insulted by being lumped in with the ruling class (versus the breeding class). Sure, references to male genitalia fall under the “rude” and “vulgar” categories, but that’s just because they are associated with sex and sex is bad. You want to know why sex is bad? It’s women’s fault. It’s their lust that has to be contained, and their offspring that needs to be controlled.

If all the skeptical community did was stop employing female gendered insults, it would make the environment more welcoming to women because it would stop emphasizing that women occupy a lower social position to men in the grand scheme of things. If the skeptical community wants to also attract people–any people–who are deterred by vulgarity and rudeness from joining groups, then it would benefit from dropping gendered insults altogether. It all depends on what message they are trying to send to what group, and that’s a marketing thing that probably equals common sense, and nobody likely needs reminding of that. I don’t know how many people in the world are put off by vulgarity or rudeness anymore. But female gendered insults? Very off-putting. Real problem.

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It’s easy for some people to brush off claims about sexism within skepticism on the grounds that “feminism” isn’t “scientific.” Skepticism has been associated in the culture at large (and within skepticism) as the cousin of the scientific method and technological advancement, and good skeptics always demand that claims be backed up with reason and evidence. Making complaints about sexism often comes in the form of anecdotes, however, and for people who are either very reluctant to admit to sexism within skepticism or else who downplay its affects or significance, criticizing feminism as unscientific and thus out of skepticism’s range wraps up the matter to their satisfaction quite nicely: they can say they are treating the matter as it should be treated and then they can ignore everything they hear.

There are problems with this approach. First of all, feminism is a philosophy. It is not supposed to be scientific, and dismissing it as unscientific is sort of a nonsequitur and is pointless. Nobody makes the claim that it is scientific(is that a strawman?).  Feminism is about beliefs and values, such as believing that women and men should have equal rights and protections and valuing this belief enough to fight for it. It doesn’t require proof, or data, or predictability, or falsifiability, or repeated results. You either believe that women and men should have equal rights and protections or you don’t. You either value this belief enough to fight for it or you don’t. You can be a skeptic and not believe that women and men should have equal rights and protections; you can be a skeptic and not value gender equality enough to fight for it. Feminism has absolutely nothing to do with what skepticism is about.

That said…

If you are a member of a skeptical community that wants more women to join and yet does not value (or hold) the belief that men and women should have equal rights and protections enough to fight for them, do not expect more women to join. You don’t have to want more women to join; that’s your decision to make. If that’s not a community you want to have, though, you’re going to have to incorporate feminism into your community’s philosophy.

On the other hand, sexism can be documented by science, at least so far as the scientific method has been adapted to the spheres of psychology, sociology, law and judicial review, educational theory, history, medicine, and other avenues of rigorous research and peer-review. There are, as I’ve said before, thousands of published articles printed in hundreds of academic journals, dozens of which are dedicated to the topic of sex and gender. There is ample evidence of sexism–deliberate and institutional–in every professional endeavor, particularly in the science and technology fields (where the imbalance between men and women is particularly glaring and where the people are already in a data-collection mindset). If it’s accepted as a given–I haven’t done or looked for any research on this, but the idea is bandied about as pseudofact–that the skeptical movement draws heavily from the science and technology fields, then it’s very highly likely that the prejudices and sexism of those fields will be largely repeated in the skeptical movement. Why wouldn’t they be? People don’t view women one way at the lab and a totally completely different way at a skeptical conference or online. And it’s the same people in both places.

Of course it is true that no one has yet published a peer-reviewed, longitudinal study of the prevalence of sexism within the skeptical community. It’s true that women complaining about sexism in skepticism can’t provide that kind of evidence, but that doesn’t make them unscientific with baseless claims and assertions. Alternately, refusing to consider the problem of sexism within skepticism until you have that kind of evidence does not make you scientific. Women making claims of sexism can find empirical data to support their interpretations of the negative experiences they endure because of sexism in skepticism, and they can provide anecdote after anecdote of women reporting shockingly similar events all across the skeptical community, and they can predict with great accuracy what a conversation about sexism with skepticism would sound like (and run the experiment again and again and again). Meanwhile, the sexism deniers (yes, I intend all connotations of that word choice) are the ones who enter the conversation with a hypothesis based on what they want to belief about the skeptical community and hold on tight to that belief no matter they hear or read. They find ways to massage data to fit their predetermined hypothesis instead of going with the simplest explanations, and toss out data that undermines it. Fudging, I believe, is one term for it.

So we’ve got on the one hand people who adhere to the philosophy of feminism who can harness scientific data about sexism in society and make strong correlations to sexism within skepticism, and people who behave as if critiquing feminism as unscientific means something and who fudge data to fit their preexisting hypothesis. I don’t think it’s the feminists who are misusing the scientific method to prove their point.

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