Friday, December 5, 2014

Women, Communication, and the Public Experience

It has been awhile since I wrote a blog post, not because I haven't had a lot to think about and a desire to write, but because I haven't had time.  My newest book, Joan de Valence: The Life and Influence of a Thirteenth-Century Noblewoman, is now at the publisher's (Palgrave Macmillan) and, presumably, in the early stages or awaiting peer review. The semester is nearly over and I have a brief hiatus before final paper and exam grading begins.  My next book project, a source book on the medieval British Isles titled Voices of Medieval England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales (ABC-Clio) is in the works but I am taking a very short breather before launching into that full-bore over my winter break.  The journal I edit, Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, is at the moment in good order and I don't have any hugely pressing deadlines on that end. In other words, for the first time truly in years, I haven't got a deadline looming like a sword of Damocles. I admit it has left me a bit befuddled.

Writing a biography of a dynamic medieval noblewoman, listening to Ashley Milne-Tyte's wonderful podcast The Broad Experience, and dealing with all of the nonsense that is part of academic life has made me think a lot about the ways in which women's forms of communication are circumscribed by social and cultural assumptions about women's voices and appropriate modes of presentation.  Joan de Valence, for example, was not the kind of woman who would be easily recognizable as "medieval" by most people not well versed in the ways in which women actually behaved in the middle ages.  She was direct, assured, determined, and not given to beating around the bush--indeed, her letters and other communications are significantly lacking in the kinds of flowery flattery her own husband, William de Valence, indulged in when writing to his socio-political superiors.  I, myself, am not known for being particularly "soft" in my discourse.  I'm a pretty direct person, and when I cannot be direct for emotional or political or professional reasons, I usually just shut up rather than try to go "girly" in my presentation.  I can be diplomatic, and I can be sympathetic and empathetic, but those are qualities that have to do with underlying personality issues, not just a mode of communication that is a convenient façade.

What is clear in the many conversations going on right now about modes of communication in the workplace and what happens when women begin to form a significant population in a particular work environment is that men are often not used to women actually expressing themselves, actually demonstrating their competence, and actually not deferring to men.  We now have a solid body of work--both research and anecdote--that demonstrates that men are unprepared for female coworkers speaking and interacting in ways that are not deferential in some kind of way.  The response in many workplaces is hostility, or harassment, or bullying, or just plain "but she is being MEAN to me" boyish whining.  Unfortunately, instead of the men having their wrists slapped for failing to understand that women are people too, women are being told to "moderate" their speech, to "soften" their message: that men won't listen to them if they are too "harsh" or "direct."  This drives me crazy.

I believe firmly and wholeheartedly in civil discourse.  I think that, especially in professional situations, there is no reason for rudeness.  But I experience rude people every day--and they are often men who are unable or unwilling to moderate their own discourse to behave appropriately.  Moreover, they apparently feel entitled to engage in such rude behavior with impunity, while women are constrained in all kinds of ways in similar circumstances.  This is not to say that women cannot be rude--goodness knows, it is a characteristic that is not dependent on gender, age, race, religion, or sexual orientation: an equal opportunity trait.  However, women are often rude . . . well . . . differently.  They are indirect, snarky, even mean.  And women can be horrible to other women, something I frankly find appalling.  But the ways in which men are rude to women has an edge all its own.  And it makes me want to get right up to their noses and yell.  Loud.  But I don't--most of the time.

Here is my dream:  that instead of everyone anxiously instructing women to be "softer," more "appealing," and more "indirect" in their discourse so that men will "listen" to them, we instruct men to Get. Over. It.  Men should have enough sense of self-worth to endure a woman being direct, professional, even brusque.  Men should have sufficient self-confidence to survive a woman telling them they are wrong, or their work needs revision, or they have to do something again.  And women should stop sighing and saying "okay, I'll moderate."  Isn't it time to just tell people to behave themselves, listen, and be respectful?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The (Sexist) Politics of the (Transgender) Workplace

I am an NPR and PRI addict (also BBC Radio 4, which means my nerd credentials are nearly perfect). I was just now catching up on some podcasts that I had not had time to listen to and caught the episode of Marketplace Weekend that aired on July 5th.  The new host of this newly reconstituted version of Marketplace Money is the inestimable Lizzie O'Leary and she has changed the calculus of the show significantly after the rather disastrous--and short-lived--replacement of Tess Vigland with Carmen Wong Ulrich (which continues to go unremarked on the Marketplace website).  The new show has to grow into its hour-long format, but it has a lot to recommend it.  And the interview Lizzie had with Ashley Milne-Tyte about her latest story concerning transgender people in the workplace is a great sign of things to come.  Check it out:

Great but horrifying:  Ashley covered the research of a social scientist, Christin Schilt, who interviewed both trans people and their co-workers about changes in attitudes after transitioning.  The workers who had formerly been gendered female and transitioned to being male experienced a significant rise in their level of authority, in their ability to make themselves heard, and in their potential for future success.  The former men who transitioned into being women?  Just the opposite. While I was predicting this result under my breath as I listened to the interview, I was unprepared for some of the reasons why the trans women experienced a lowering of their status and more difficulties in being taken seriously: male convictions about the nefarious properties of estrogen.

Estrogen??  Really????  Male co-workers were apparently convinced that the introduction of estrogen into a circulatory system instantly produced a vapid, nail-obsessed, makeup wearing bimbo: a kind of trans Sex in the City character.  My jaw hit my computer keyboard when I heard this.  How dumb can these guys be?  And do they really think that women are all inherently disabled by the presence of estrogen?  This takes us way beyond sexism and into the realm of male self-delusionary fantasies.

Now, I happen to be a cancer survivor and there has been a marked absence of estrogen in my system for almost twenty years because of the surgeries, chemo, and other treatments that I underwent lo those many years ago.  I have noticed quite a few changes--such as a lower libido (something that is problematic in managing my life with my sweetheart) and some physical issues that relate to being thrown into menopause at the age of 38 instead of at the usual time.  What I have NOT noticed is that the absence of estrogen has resulted in a greater inclination to drink beer, belch, get into bar fights, or watch football.  In other words, my lack of estrogen has not turned me into a pop-culture caricature of  a man.  I have not turned into some bizarre Simpsons character.  I still wear heels and like makeup (masks are very handy things in the public world).  And I am still the direct, over-analytical person I have always been, estrogen-full or estrogen-free.

So how to address this level of self-congratulatory ignorance among male co-workers of women?  Do we have training sessions, ones titled "Estrogen will not make you stupid"?  How early do we have to start teaching these lessons?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Racial Profiling and Violence against Women in the Academy

Arizona State University has a little problem on its hands. Professor Ersula Ore, who is African-American, was arrested for "assaulting" a campus police officer after he roughed her up for jaywalking across a street that joins two halves of the ASU campus and she kicked him after he had thrown her to the ground. Her crime? Walking on a college campus while black.  In fact, she was leaving campus after teaching a summer school class.

Instead of dealing reasonably with this situation, ASU's administration has denied responsibility, saying that Professor Ore was a "private citizen" at the time, because she was crossing a public road, even though the policeman who engaged with her is a campus cop.  Really?  I mean--REALLY?

College and university administrations are finally getting unwanted attention for ignoring sexual assaults on their campuses, for ignoring the bullying of (usually female) professors and instructors, for exploiting contingent labor (i.e. adjunct and non-tenure-track instructors) and the local labor force that supplies them with clerical and maintenance staff.  And they don't like it because administrators are usually PART of the problem.  Most administrators are more concerned about the bonuses they will get from their boards of trustees than the people who actually are the heart and soul of their august institutions: their faculties.  They talk about promoting diversity while simultaneously encouraging their admissions offices to go for the affluent student over the student who might actually benefit hugely from higher education, but whose ability to pay is not as guaranteed and who might need more attention and guidance than a rich kid there for the social life.

It is time for everyone to pay attention: the United States is no longer a bastion of whiteness and the middle class is shrinking.  If we want to survive and thrive, we have to welcome people of color, women, and the non-affluent into our worlds of opportunity and, at the very least, we need to teach our police forces that behaving appallingly to a person who doesn't fit the affluent white profile is unacceptable behavior that will be punished.

Sign the petition.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Violence Toward and Hatred of Women: A Global Epidemic

Three hundred schoolgirls abducted weeks ago in Nigeria and the government there does more or less nothing, even though the crazy group that abducted them has a history of selling women they abduct into sex slavery because that is all women are good for in their minds.  Rampant sexual harassment and abuse in the US military--of both women and men--by serial predators who have carte blanche from their COs to continue the behavior.  Gang rapes and attacks on women by frat "boys" and college athletes that are hushed up by university administrations because it is "bad publicity".  The continuing problem of sexual harassment of female students by (mostly male) faculty members in positions of power over them--again buried and silenced by administrations anxious to present their institutions as enlightened and egalitarian. The list goes on and on.

And now this: a clearly disturbed young man whose own family was concerned about him (but not enough to actually monitor his behavior and engage him directly) goes on a killing spree intent on "punishing" the men around him having sex and the women around him who won't allow him access.

How is this different from the murderers and thugs called Boko Haram?  How is this different from the murderers and thugs called the Taliban?  How is this different from the murderers and thugs we might encounter on the streets every day, who beat their wives, say disgusting things about women, enjoy watching violent pornography in which women are victimized, and terrorize their neighbors, even if they do nothing overtly illegal that could provide some kind of amelioration of the community's victimization?

Here is the problem: the objectification of women is not new and it is not going to be addressed through law (although that does at least give women some recourse) or through handwringing.  The objectification of women derives from millennia-long attitudes by the dominant patriarchal cultures that ALL saw the need to confine, vilify, abuse, and erase women in order to present men as purer, better, and more able to govern and rule.  And why?  Friedrich Engels and Gerda Lerner both saw the sexual enslavement of women as the origins of notions of private property and "civilization": if women were in control of their own bodies, then men would not have guaranteed sexual access to them.  If women had positions of autonomy then men couldn't guarantee that they would be in charge.  So women had to be controlled, confined, and limited.  The only way to do this effectively was--and in many cases still is--to condemn women's sexuality and to equate female-ness with everything undesirable in a "civilized" world.

I consider myself to be something of a relativist in that I don't consider western culture to be inherently superior to all other cultures and I don't have a progressive view of civilization.  I do, however, draw the line at a relativistic view of attitudes about women.  There is nothing sacred about a culture's denigration of women; there is nothing valid about any culture's claim of female inferiority; there is nothing appropriate in any culture's use of law, religion, or custom to keep women enslaved, confined, uneducated, and abused.

The problem is that (male-dominated) governments and organizations, including the United Nations, are themselves highly selective about the times when they intervene on behalf of abused women and most of the time do nothing.  How is it that the United States can conveniently highlight the Taliban's treatment of women but continue to say nothing about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia or any other country that is allied with the US in which women are enslaved and materially and sexually exploited?  How is it that police departments in the United States can talk about the horrible tragedy of some crazy guy who goes on a rampage of horrific violence and yet refuse to address the issues of misogyny and sexism within their own departments?  How is it that universities can claim to have a "zero-tolerance" policy against predatory violence and yet pressure victims of such violence not to go to the police, not to press charges, and not to air their grievances publicly?  How is it that religious organizations can self-righteously proclaim that they don't discriminate against women while denying them leadership roles in the organizations and burying the rampant predatory behavior of some of their own personnel?

Until everyone steps up and speaks truth to power--no matter the source of that power--nothing will happen.  It is beyond time to authorize the definition of feminism as "the revolutionary notion that women are PEOPLE" and use it to challenge every single incidence of nasty, smarmy, snarky, and denigrating speech against women, and to demand that the presentation of violence against women as "normal" and "culturally-appropriate" be itself vilified and erased.  And then we have to teach our children--and be vigilant in their education--not to tolerate these attitudes at any time.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Critical Thinking, Secularism, and the Humanities in Higher Education

I just graded a bunch of midterm exams in a class I am teaching on women in the ancient world.  I am not fond of grading exams, but they do reveal interesting and important information about how my students' minds work.  They also reveal a lot about students' assumptions of their abilities, their insecurities, and their responses to adversity.

In our current age of grade inflation, especially at the grade-school level, students think that the work that got them Bs and As in high school will serve them equally well in college.  When it doesn't--especially in classes that challenge them to think outside the textbook and without the crutch of Wikipedia--students sometimes become truculent, or panicky (often the A students whose grades were slightly below perfect), or morose.  The ones I worry about the most are those who don't care:  their attitude toward a D or an F is a shrug and some eye-rolling.

American students have come to believe that access to higher education is a given, like access to public school.  This is particularly true of affluent students--who are also among the most lackadaisical in their attitudes toward their education.  In fact, higher education is a privilege, one that we provide to a large number of students (although never enough people of color) in exchange for money that is supposed to underwrite the educational expertise of instructors, staff, and administrators.  There is a lot wrong with higher education in the USA, including a woeful lack of preparedness of many if not most students entering post-secondary programs.  But one thing that I know we do well is to teach students to question:  to think, to argue, to disagree, and ultimately to open their minds to the possibilities of different perspectives.  This last idea is also considered by many conservative and/or doctrinaire critics as the most dangerous.

I am also watching the reboot of Cosmos on television, with Neil deGrasse Tyson following in the footsteps of the late great Carl Sagan.  NdGT is one of the strongest public voices for a natural worldview, a rejection of supernatural explanations for the universe and its contents, and a championing of critical thinking and creativity that is inherent in the best kinds of science and critical discourse.  In one episode, focusing on the process commonly called "evolution" he states the true intellectual's credo: that we are not bothered by the idea that we don't know everything, and that the true hubris in humans is claiming that one does know everything because of a belief in a supernatural being and some particular text designated by a particular population as "sacred."

Teaching ancient history in the Heartland is an interesting process because students who come from families and households that emphasize supernatural explanations find themselves confronted with our instructions (my colleague and I--not the royal we!) to consider ancient religions to be, um, religions and not "myths," one that are as legitimate as the religions celebrated today.  We talk about religious celebrations, such as the Thesmophoria or the Eleusinian Mysteries, as ones that solve the basic social and cultural reinforcements that modern-day Catholic masses, Jewish Friday-night services, and Islamic requirements to pray five times a day also address.  In addition, we present the development of religious perspectives as a normal process of human culture, similar to the development of other intellectual perspectives, not something that operates independently of the natural world and humanity.

As you can imagine, we get some pushback about this presentation of ancient religion, but we still persist.  Why?  Because it is the right thing to do:  it is part of my job to encourage students to confront their own assumptions, to evaluate them unemotionally, and to make informed choices.

Isn't that what true education is all about?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Happy International Women's Day! We get a DAY to take off the Invisibility Cloak!

International Women's Day is a pretty important event outside the United States, and it isn't clear why it's not a bigger deal here in the US.  Perhaps the notion of solidarity with women around the globe just doesn't resonate in a society where women can't seem to get their minds around the idea of solidarity with each other.  Perhaps International Women's Day and the "Housewives" reality-show franchise, which seems to be the only (and soul-destroyingly) consistent presentation of women engaging with each other in the USA, just don't mix.  Perhaps we are too diverse--and too divisive--a culture to understand the need for women of all socio-economic levels, ethnicities, and values to stick up for themselves against a global patriarchal system that will try, by any means necessary, to limit women's autonomy, agency, and independence.

But IWD is an important day, even if I can say that my values--admittedly western, feminist, humanist, non-supernatural--probably are not those of many of the women in the world for whom the day is truly their only point of self-expression every year.  I experience cognitive dissonance whenever I try to rationalize organized religion and women's rights, for instance, but I know and respect many women who don't experience that confusion, for whom feminism and a supernatural worldview are not mutually exclusive.

What is disappointing is that for the rest of the year, women and women's freedom are more or less non-subjects, relegated to the back pages of newspapers and sources of sniggers and smarm in the visual media.  I think it was on IWD that the US Congress failed to renew the violence against women act last year.  It was finally renewed, but how many people heard about it?  On the other hand, St Patricks Day parades are all over the news--usually for the wrong reasons (because they tend to be organized and enjoyed by homophobic asses interested in getting blotto in the middle of the day).  And of course the guys all over the globe who do nothing but perpetrate horrors on their own populations have no trouble at all getting into the news and justifying their execrable behavior, including the slaughter and torture of women, LGBTQ people, and children.  But the victims?  Nah:  invisible.

It would be nice if our government--on all levels--and our society--on all levels--took women seriously.  If they did, then it would be likely that they would take steps to ameliorate all the elements of public policy that operate as stunning failures to address the real and pressing problems of women in American society: the failure to enact appropriate workplace childcare mandates; the failure to enact appropriate sanctions against sexual assault in the military; the failure to address the persistent poverty of single-parent Mom-led households; the failure to raise the minimum wage to one that is actually a living wage; the failure to educate and acculturate men to social norms that don't oppress or victimize women; the failure to get a handle on the sexual exploitation of women and children.

Until western countries began extending the franchise to women, less than 100 years ago, the legal status of women in most western countries was the same as children, convicted felons, the insane, and the "mentally deficient."  Women were seen as all of those things simultaneously:  disabled by their possession of vaginas and uteri instead of penises and testes.  Prone to "hysteria"--a Greek word that means "womb sickness"--and mentally incapacitated because of our ovaries.  This presentation of women still exists today in many, many countries, where women's labor is essential to the health of the community but women themselves are considered expendable and valueless.  Heck, it exists here in the USA.

Isn't it time to turn the other 364 days into International Women's Day?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Homophobia, Hollywood, and the Heartland

NY Times 3-2-14 Strip: Homophobia Handbook
I don't usually watch the Academy Awards.  For one thing, I usually don't get to most of the movies being honored (and I cannot watch extreme violence or brutalization in any form so avoid a lot of the ones that often wind up being nominated).  For another thing, I find the kind of self-congratulatory smugness of awards shows to be eye-rollingly idiotic.  But Ellen DeGeneres's brand of gentle insurrectionist comedy is very appealing and I admire her for living her life unapologetically and with grace.

What was kind of interesting about this year's best picture nominees was their variety.  The usual suspects--violence, greed, violence, Woody Allen, bloviating verbosity, violence--was mitigated by films with important social and/or historical intentions (12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club) or delicacy and seriousness (Philomena and Gravity).  I admit: I have not seen any of these films.  I'm waiting for them to stream on Netflix, although I might have to wait a long time.  The outcome of the voting was, in my mind, entirely predictable:  the Academy would have had to be totally blind, deaf, and mute to fail to see that 12 Years a Slave HAD to win, not just because it was the most acclaimed film of the year, but because of its topic, its cast, its level of commitment to forcing a confrontation between Americans and their shared past.

Hollywood has a lot more trouble depicting gay people honestly and unashamedly.  I think that this has a lot to do with the fact that it is not acceptable to be racist anymore--and there are obvious advantages to embracing the non-white populations because their money spends, too, and they are growing as an internal community of smart, committed professionals in the film industry.  It is still entirely acceptable (I hope not for long) to claim ridiculous and ignorant bigotry against gay people. They can claim a rejection of the "gay lifestyle" on the basis of religion.  Gay people have to reveal themselves to be gay and suffer the consequences of that revelation (vide Ellen DeGeneres herself).  The proclivity of people to engage in smarmy nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor about gay people and women continues unabated and is rarely challenged.  In Hollywood, scriptwriters still tend to include a gay (male) character as the female lead's BFF; if a serious gay role appears in a film, the actor is almost always straight.  Gay actors who are "out" rarely get straight romantic leading roles.

Just as Seinfeld (a tv show I never watched because I am from NYC and it horrified me) was designed to appeal to the "Heartland" that had a) never met a Jewish person, and b) never been to New York City, the tv show Modern Family is similarly designed to appeal to Midwesterners whose presumed contact with gay people is minimal.  Nevertheless, it is more radical by far than the typical presentation of a gay person in a mainstream movie.  And because of that, it has probably done more to "normalize" gay people for the Heartland than any movie.  That should be instructive.

Our political and cultural systems tend to be dominated by the Midwest, even when the population clusters around the edges of the country.  The "Heartland" is noisy--glorifying gun ownership, vilifying liberalism and inclusiveness, claiming the religious high ground while misinterpreting Christian texts with a breathtaking degree of tone-deafness.  If people are unwilling to challenge the worldview of the Heartland, then nothing changes.  It is time for Hollywood to step up and do this.  It is time for Hollywood to accept that gay people are "normal" too--and that gay actors can actually play straight roles or leading gay roles just like straight actors.  It is time to shake up the pervasive patriarchal, sexist paternalism of the Hollywood system.  No:  it is PAST time to do this.