Monday, October 26, 2009

Strident, Humorless & Shrill

Women now comprise half the work force and have made impressive gains in some professions. An essay by Joanne Lipman in the NY Times on Saturday notes these data but makes a compelling case that they are misleading. Making up half the work force is not the same as having equality. Women still make less money than men, are not taken as seriously, and are not treated with respect at the same level as professional men.

I liked the essay, but one thing about it surprised me. Near the beginning, Lipman wrote:

My generation of professional women took equality for granted. When I was in college in the 1980s, many of us looked derisively at the women’s liberation movement. That was something that strident, humorless, shrill women had done before us.

I am of her generation of professional women, but my college friends and I never took equality for granted. We were not derisive about the women's liberation movement, and I don't know (well) anyone my age who was.

To my friends and me, the women who came before us and fought for equal rights are heroes.

We believed that people who bought into the stereotype of feminists as strident, humorless, shrill women were ignorant. My Republican uncles thought of feminists that way. And my postdoc supervisor, who used to tell jokes about feminists who were strident, humorless, and shrill, and then when I didn't laugh, he took this as proof of at least the humorless part.

These were older, conservative men. None of my friends felt this way, though I must admit that I don't know anyone who has worked at The Wall Street Journal as did Lipman. My friends and I thought Gloria Steinem was (and is) smart, glamorous, and cool.

It was interesting to read an essay by a successful woman who is similar in age and educational background (I looked up where she went to college) and who has been surprised at not being treated with as much respect for her talents and accomplishments as she would have been as a man. I have not been surprised by similar professional experiences in my own (much more modest) career, but we've ended up with the same opinion, writing about similar topics.

25 comments:

Hope said...

I thought it was the generation of women in college today that takes equality for granted! Or perhaps every generation since the women’s lib movement has been accused of this?

I’m a feminist, but I must confess that after spending time on some feminist blogs, I can sympathize with the urge to distance yourself from them (and the feminist label). I think that this is a problem for feminism … but maybe it’s not a new problem.

Anonymous said...

I am tired of making the same comment to you FSP. I almost feel like Carlos Mencia on South Park begging Kanye West to "just get it". We have equality today... just get it.

Peggy said...

Thank you, FSP, for another great post! It is unfortunately even more the case today that young women do not always appreciate the efforts of those who came before them and the impact of those women on their own lives. I wish it were the case that today's female scientists and engineers would never face different expectations and treatment because of their gender, but we are not there yet.

Mrs. Chemist said...

I took a class in college on the effect of the 80's on the women's movement. The core idea of the course being that in the 80's many people had the same view as Lipman, creating an era of "post-feminism", therefore allowing the women's movement for equality to take steps backwards. There's actually quite a bit of material on the subject, and it's interesting to read.
We talked alot about Gloria Steinem in that class, and I too think she's an amazing woman, and have even been fortunate enough to hear her speak and briefly meet her.

Hope - I think you're right on target with both your statements, personally, I think there's a really fine line beteween feminism (like FSP demonstrates) and radicalism (which gives us all a bad name).

Anonymous said...

anyone that doesn't appreciate the women's movement should watch a few seasons of Mad Men.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I have to disagree with Hope and Mrs. Chemist. There are many feminisms, and the one appropriate to your situation may not be appropriate to mine, or to FSP's. I'm grateful for the simultaneous online presence of several feminist voices in order to remind us that our own experience may not be the final word on the subject, and that it's a bit early to hang the "mission accomplished" banner.

The fact is that labels like "strident, humorless and shrill" have been used to keep women divided -- sure, be a feminist, but be *nice* about it. And now I'm rubbing my hands with glee, waiting for CPP to weigh in.

Anonymous said...

Just like Hope above, I am a feminist too and also feel an urge to distance myself from what currently passes as feminism.

The loudest feminists today seem to be in a race to holier-than-thou moral ground rather than addressing effective change.

Feminists in the 60s fought for jobs and equitable divorce laws. Feminists today in the blogosphere spend their time observing that if you trace back its obscure-etymological roots "seminal" maybe, could possibly be sexist. (FSP: I believe you yourself have been there recently. Sorry!).

What point does that serve if not to flaunt a supposed hypersensitivity to sexism that places the speaker one up?

Call me when it comes to stopping the tenure clock or subsidized access to daycare (to all workers), or to stop sexual advances from creepy professors or any other substantive issue. I'll be there every time and fight the good fight. Otherwise don't bother.

Interdisciplinary Introspective said...

FSP, I think you are too hard on this author. Most likely, the differences between you and her stem from sources other than your age and similar undergraduate institutions. Perhaps she did not have bigoted uncles, but was raised firmly believing in her worth as a woman and in her equality with men. As well, she probably studied English or journalism, and so did not struggle as an undergrad in a department dominated by men, as you undoubtedly did. So, while it may seem naive that she didn't anticipate ever encountering sexism, it doesn't seem that unlikely that she didn't actually see it until she hit the workforce. From my own experience (albeit 15-20 years later), it wasn't until I reached graduate school that I truly felt the sting of sexism (several times over). I think what we should take from her comment is the need to balance the education of our daughters. Young women should be taught to believe in themselves and in their equality with men. However, they should also be made aware that the struggle is not over. Sexist attitudes and policies still exist, and still need to be battled against.

Anonymous said...

And my postdoc supervisor, who used to tell jokes about feminists who were strident, humorless, and shrill, and then when I didn't laugh, he took this as proof of at least the humorless part.

Hunh. I wonder how he would have liked to hear some choice man jokes...


This might well be beside the point, but this "Feminists are humorless!" thing really bugs me. In my experience the most humorless and strident people are usually misogynists. It makes sense! After all, real humor is often a survival strategy for oppressed people.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @4:21 am:

It's fantastic for you that, whatever choices you have made in your life, you have encountered no hindrances or discrimination (overt or subtle or subconscious) based on gender that lead you to suggest that we 'have equality today'. Unfortunately, there is clearly also another group of people who have not lived your charmed life (including myself), and who do struggle with these issues in both day-to-day and larger, long-term problems. Your naive comments make you sound like the kind of person who thinks poverty doesn't exist in America because you live in a nice suburb. If you think FSP doesn't get it, just stop reading.

Genomic Repairman said...

I audited a women's studies course for a day so and previously dating a raging feminist for two years I feel expert in saying that women still feel the pressure of the imperialist male chovanist jackboot on their necks. I believe we are making progress (you can own property, vote, drive car [well some of you can, but then again that also goes for males and minorities too]). Are you my equal peer at work: No! You guys generally get the short end of the stick and have a tougher row to hoe than us guys. Is it my fault? Fuck no! I didn't create this system, I'm merely a bit player on this stage. I feel for you guys. I think we are on the right track to y'all (pause for southern inflection) to there being a leveled playing field. So whatever I can do to help out let me know. By the way, I make some sick fucking brownies if you guys are ever interested in having an equality bakesale! I'm serious. My brownies rock.

Hope said...

The fact is that labels like "strident, humorless and shrill" have been used to keep women divided -- sure, be a feminist, but be *nice* about it.

Being nice is underrated.

I am a nice person, but I’m certainly nobody’s doormat. If someone wants to call me a bitch (or “strident, humorless, and shrill”) for rightfully asserting myself, then that is their problem and their mistake, not mine. Some women, however, seem to take this to an extreme, as if thinking, “Since you’re going to call me a bitch, I might as well *be* a bitch … about everything!” Then they turn around and tell others who don’t act this way that they are being “nice” because they have been brainwashed by the patriarchy. Sadly, it is these women who have bought into the false dichotomy of “bitch vs. nice,” who have in some cases altered who they are because they felt it was the only way to get what they wanted.

Being nice doesn’t mean you can’t be a “bitch” when the situation warrants it. But I recommend leading with nice.

Anonymous said...

I think terms like "strident, humorless and shrill" were probably more often used by opponents of feminists, against would-be feminists to keep them in their place.

In other words - 'behave and play nicely, you don't want us (men) to find you strident, humorless, or shrill, do you?'

These are, after all, just words. It's been shown that the same affects which would be described by positive adjectives in men, such as 'go-getter', or 'leader', often earn less-positive adjectives for women - 'ball-buster' or 'power-hungry'

Don't drink the kool-aid of their terms.

Anonymous said...

anyone that doesn't appreciate the women's movement should watch a few seasons of Mad Men.

Good point, but I think the argument is subtler than that.

Consider the example of unions. The gains they made during the late 1800s and early 1900s are undeniable, and we should all be grateful for them.

At the same time, it is not clear how much of that heroic past is left in the current UAW which was an integral component of the union-management-and-workers-led demise of the Detroit car industry.

Back on the issue of feminism, after the great victories that you allude to with your Mad Men reference the feminist movement went through a process of readjustment. In my opinion they have spent far too much time since chasing academic moot points like switching actress to actor but latino to latina (if that makes any sense!)

The current big challenge of feminism, now that they have won a place for women at the work place is to secure a place for childrearing mothers. Currently the deal is: you'll do fine as a mother as long as you agree to rear your children like an absentee man.

Securing the gains already made in the workplace remains an important goal but does not raise to the level of "big challenge".

Just my two cents.

Anonymous said...

Anon 02:45:00 PM
"Currently the deal is: you'll do fine as a mother as long as you agree to rear your children like an absentee man."

The opposite is also true. As a father you'll do fine as long as you rear your children like an absentee man.

Women get screwed over on this one but the intitutionalised sexism is much worse if you as a man (gasp shock horror etc) elect to be the lead caregiver. Your career is fucked. There are rules in place to make sure that it remains fucked. You must not step off the treadmill.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 4:21-
Please explain how making 77cents for every dollar a man makes doing the same job is equality. How is paying more for insurance equality?

These are not even the subtle things....

Anonymous said...

I hear you. Every day I am reminded of how as a research scientist I am being paid less and being treated with less respect than men at my level (or men who should be below my level but are in fact at or above my level). In fact I constantly find myself being assigned to be some sort of assistant or enabler to some male colleague, if not this one than that one, even though I just want to be left alone to do my own work and not be assisting all the men (hey, no one is assisting me in my research).

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 10/26/2009 04:21:00 AM
I am tired of making the same comment to you FSP. I almost feel like Carlos Mencia on South Park begging Kanye West to "just get it". We have equality today... just get it.

Anon4:21, if you are so tired of making the same comment to FSP, then stop doing so. No one is forcing you to read or comment on other people's blogs, you know.

Anonymous said...

She forgot "hysterical". Those were all of the words that went before "feminist" from about 1980 to maybe 2000. I mean, it was ALWAYS one of those words - got rather boring.

Aisling said...

Anonymous 5:23
Please explain how making 77 cents for every dollar a man makes doing the same job is equality.

I did see this figure in the Times and I in fact did not find it all that informative in the end. What if the balance is really shifted by people who are close to retirement age? This would mean we're looking at folks who started their career 30-40 years ago, when clearly men and women did not have equal access to work. It seems reasonable that men who entered the work force 30-40 years ago do indeed make (much) more than women who entered the work force 30-40 years ago, because at this time high-paying high-responsability jobs were just not accessible to women. So the 77% figure may just reflect a situation from 30-40 years ago.

What would be informative is data on what the salary difference is for men and women who started the *same* job around the *same* time.

cvh said...

FSP,
Your concern about the (mis)characterization of feminists is echoed in today's NYTimes in a letter from Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who chastises the author for this comment. I agree w/ you that as a feminist of the same era as you, this characterization just doesn't cut it.

It reminds me, though, of a conversation I had with an emminent Org Theorist (I am an Org Theorist) after I gave him some readings on Feminist Political Theory to get him up to date on the conversation (back in 1996 or so). His big question, after all that reading, was "Why are feminists so angry?". I told him to go read the stuff again.

The anger - whether shrill or gentle in its expression - is real. Meaning, based in reality. Real life experience. Real bruises. The dismissal of this reality is the part that offends me, even more than the ignorance of it.
cvh

Anonymous said...

"Why are feminists so angry?"

The anger - whether shrill or gentle in its expression - is real. Meaning, based in reality. Real life experience. Real bruises. The dismissal of this reality is the part that offends me, even more than the ignorance of it.


Sorry but that doesn't cut it.

There are plenty of reasons for women to be upset, but if you want people to listen to you, one has to learn when and where to shout and be angry and when not to.

A book is hardly the place to be angry. A rally in the Washington Mall is.

If this guy is sensitive enough to go and read a book the last thing he needs is to be screamed at.

Zuska said...

There are plenty of reasons for women to be upset, but if you want people to listen to you, one has to learn when and where to shout and be angry and when not to.

Yes, I think I have learned this pretty well. I have learned to shout and be angry whenever stupid shit happens that pisses me off and makes me angry, and it is something that is worth speaking up about and spending my energy to make waves over it. Pretty much the decision has almost nothing to do with whether or not some stoopid d00d is going to get his precious feelings hurt because omigod a woman has gotten angry.

A book is hardly the place to be angry. A rally in the Washington Mall is.

Why do we have to choose? Malcolm X spoke to crowds and he wrote books, too.

If this guy is sensitive enough to go and read a book the last thing he needs is to be screamed at.

Hmm. Quite possibly, the first thing he needs is to be screamed at, in order to get his attention. Yes, there's a time and place for civil discourse - that would be in a meeting with the dean or provost (though even there, one can deploy anger in a strategic manner, using the politest of terms to convey the most urgent and passionate angry feelings and thoughts) but you know, sometimes the screaming is necessary. If only to keep our own heads from exploding, if only to let other women know they are not alone in their anger.

There are plenty of places in the world where we have to swallow our anger till we choke, because we just can't afford, for so many reasons, to express how we truly feel. Why are you on such a campaign to expand the number of those spaces to include, of all things, blogs and books? If you want to hear the silence of women swallowing their rage so as not to disturb the men around them, there's plenty of that to go around, and you can always go home and listen to yourself. But don't expect everyone else to follow your lead.

Anonymous said...

Pretty much the decision has almost nothing to do with whether or not some stoopid d00d is going to get his precious feelings hurt because omigod a woman has gotten angry.

It's not at all about hurting his feelings. It's about the fact that before he was a potential ally and partner, now he might just be another mysoginist who has had his biases confirmed. In which way does this help the cause of feminism?

Why do we have to choose? Malcolm X spoke to crowds and he wrote books, too.


No exclusion per person was implied. I've screamed at rallies but also carefully explained to a colleague willing to listen why the policies of the department were biased against women. Screaming at him would not have helped at all.

Why are you on such a campaign to expand the number of those spaces to include, of all things, blogs and books?

Wooosh.

The alternative to "not-screaming" is not silence, it's dialogue.

If an injustice happens, stand up and express your disagreement at once. Do it as cogently and politely as possible and undecided people will join you. Often that is enough to effect change. It it isn't now you have an enlarged base with which to go down the Washington Mall and demand change at the top of your lungs.

Jackie M. said...

I think it was--and still is--utterly impossible to major in a male-dominated field such as the physical sciences, engineering, or computing and seriously regard the feminists of days gone by as anything other than heroes. It might have been possible, and in fact culturally acceptable, in the field Lipman was pursuing, to ignore the glass ceilings right up until the minute one hit one's head on one.

But it was (and still is) rather difficult to have that attitude in any profession as visibly dominated by older men as physics or enginneering or computing are.