This article, written in 1927 by the psychoanalyst Smith Ely Jeliffe (a dude) has a take on workplace sexism that is, to me, startlingly contemporary.
I simmer and stew over the almost cliched inequity of it. It would be soothing to blame some sort of institutional sexism, to take refuge in that. But the fault is so clearly, evidently, unambiguously my own.
She then goes on to explain why it’s clearly, evidently, unambiguously her own fault that
I also suspect there is something deep in childhood being communicated to most boys that is not communicated to most girls. Do boys grow up steeped in these negotiations, prepped for them? I glance over at my six-year-old on an iPad, busily slaying zombies and creepers on Minecraft, and blasting open treasure chests. Is he somehow absorbing the lesson that you should wrench the gold you need from a largely hostile and bewildering world?
I am also attuned to all the ways niceness is constructed for women, the pressure to smile for photographs, the urge to apologise for breathing, the whole elaborate social construction of female likability; and yet, when it comes to asking for more money, I have a horror of being disliked, or of the particular kind of dislike that sort of assertion provokes.
This strikes me as a very female problem: spending huge amounts of energy warding off the perception that you are somehow entitled, stuck up. There is a strong instinct towards diffusing competition, deflecting envy, towards not having people resent you. All the rampant female self-deprecation, the constant apologising, is part of this same maddening, consuming phenomenon.
One has to wonder where this responsibility to make strangers feel warm and happy comes from. Did women inherit the responsibility to erase all the awkward moments in the world?
Doesn’t it kind of seem like part of what’s keeping her salary down is clearly, evidently, unambiguously sexism? Is it really that soothing to think otherwise? I mean, it’s soothing for me to believe it’s all Katie Roiphe’s fault, because it means I don’t have to change what I’m doing in any way. But why is it soothing for her?
More on Aaronson (see previous post for context):
I was struck by this commment Scott made on Gil Kalai’s blog:
Yes, I admit, I do have the moral philosopher’s (or for that matter, the mathematician’s) habit of trying to take stated principles to their logical conclusions, even if many people would regard those conclusions as “irrelevant” or “absurd.” (To take a different example: “People should have the right to own whatever weapon they want, since merely owning it doesn’t harm anyone.” “OK then, what about nuclear missiles?” “That’s irrelevant and absurd! I was talking about guns.”) Is this habit something I should apologize for?
and this reddit comment he quotes approvingly:
I think the reason Dworkin comes up in discussions like this is because her thinking is the logical endpoint of mainstream feminist theory.
It goes something like this:
1) Women are systematically oppressed by men
2) If 1 is true, how can a woman ever consent to sex or practically anything else with men? Any “consent” a woman gives will be given under duress because she is being systematically oppressed.
3) If any “consent” a woman gives is under duress (because every decision and choice a woman makes is under duress because she’s being systematically oppressed), then women can never ever give consent in any dealing with men.
Dworkin, to her credit, was so logical that she came to this conclusion and accepted it. All logical thinkers will probably come to this conclusion which is why nerds and STEM people will like and understand Dworkin. She’s logical. She makes sense.
For my own part, I find this idea of taking political and moral principles to their logical conclusions to be very weird. And I don’t think it’s “the mathematician’s habit,” as Scott says. At least, it’s not this mathematician’s habit. Being a mathematician doesn’t incline me to apply Boolean operations to ethical principles; on the contrary, I think being a mathematician makes me more alive than the average person to the difference between mathematical assertions (which do behave really well under logical operations) and every other kind.
In particular, I don’t find the argument by the reddit commenter very compelling. There are lots of feminists (I think almost all feminists!) who sound nothing like Andrea Dworkin, and who pretty obviously think that there exists sex between men and women that isn’t rape. Is that because they can’t do logic? I am a STEM person and a feminist and I think systematic sexism exists in the world and I don’t think heterosexual sex is rape. Is that because I can’t do logic?
No — it’s because I think there are very few assertions about sex, power and feminism which stand in a relation of authentic logical entailment.
Everybody’s talking about Laurie Penny’s awesome essay responding to Scott Aaronson’s courageously candid blog comment, all touched off by the canceling of Walter Lewin’s online course after he sexually harrassed one of the students.
Scott is frustrated that shy, nerdy men are seen as “privileged.” He thinks they’re the opposite of privileged. I don’t see things the way Scott does, but I’m glad he wrote what he wrote. It must have been pretty hard to do.
Scott feels a certain distance from feminism because of stuff like this:
Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.
But here’s the thing. Were those workshops, and the feminist writers he read in college, trying to tell him it was a monstrous thing for a man to try to date a woman? Here’s one clue: most feminists, like most women generally, are straight, and date men. Many of the people leading his sexual-assault prevention workshops probably had boyfriends. Many of the feminist writers he read were married to men.
So where, if not from feminists, was he getting the idea that a romantic approach was inherently a kind of assault? That’s patriarchy talking. It’s patriarchy that gets between your ear and your mind and turns “Be sensitive to the cues of the person you’re approaching and wait for consent” to “You’d better not even try,” because it’s patriarchy that presents conquest and seizure as the only allowable model for a man’s sexuality.
Now here my imaginary Scott Aaronson protests, “but I didn’t think all expression of het interest was assault, only that my own wasn’t guaranteed not to be, and nobody would tell me how to get that guarantee.” To which I can only say: yep. When you take driver’s ed they don’t tell you any formula that absolutely positively guarantees you won’t crash your car, hurt yourself, hurt someone else, ruin your life. If you demand such a guarantee they’ll tell you “All I can say is never drive, it’s the only way to be sure.” But if this leads you to never drive, because the risk is too great to be borne? That’s a problem with your risk assessment, not a problem with driver’s ed.
It’s sad and kind of crushing to read what happened to Scott. He says he wanted to be a woman, or a sexless being. He thinks that’s because feminism made it seem intolerable to be a man. But it wasn’t. Partly it was because he attached vastly more anxiety to the difficulty of dating than most people, even than most shy, nerdy, romantically inexperienced people (hi, teenaged me!) do. And partly it was because patriarchy gave him a false and vicious idea of what a man was.
That first line again:
Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.
He was both! You can be — in fact, it’s hard for a man not to be — both beneficiary and victim of sexism. Those two things don’t cancel each other out like positive and negative terms in an equation. They are both there, and they both count.
Turd and bean soup is a terrible soup. But: when your friend, who has only turds, says, “I’m hungry, I wish my soup had some beans in it,” it is no reply at all to say “but my soup is filled with turds and the beans kind of taste like turd.” They are still beans. Even as your mouth fills with the rich flavor of turd and you feel like puking, the beans nourish and enrich you.
Conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds is mad mad mad mad mad about .. well, I’ll let him tell it:
After years of effort, the European Space Agency’s lander Philae landed on a comet 300 million miles away. At first, people were excited. Then some women noticed that one of the space scientists, Matt Taylor, was wearing a shirt, made for him by a female “close pal,” featuring comic-book depictions of semi-naked women. And suddenly, the triumph of the comet landing was drowned out by shouts of feminist outrage about … what people were wearing.
Let’s sit with that a minute. I just searched for “Philae” on Twitter and you know how many tweets I had to scroll through before I found one that mentioned Matt Taylor and his shirt? 32. That sounds about right — I’d say 3% of the coverage I saw of the comet landing had to do with Matt Taylor’s shirt, and 97% had to do with the fact that we awesomely landed a robot on a comet.
But for Reynolds, the 3% drowns out the 97%. 3% is too much. 1% is too much! Any little speck of feminist content is like the pea under the mattress for these guys. They can’t rest because the 3% is digging into them, it keeps them up all night, the feminism is still there, I can feel it, make it stop make it stop!
Feminist blogger writes something feminist, receives a flood of misogynistic harassment and death threats:
“Don’t be so uptight, you can’t take stuff like that seriously, people say things like that on the Internet all the time, you’ve just got to have a thicker skin about it.”
Angry dude posts videos full of misogynistic ranting and death threats, later kills people:
“The police really screwed this up, this guy basically said what he was going to do on the Internet, why didn’t they take it seriously, how could they not have involuntarily committed him in advance?”
Someone shared this HuffPo piece on my Facebook feed:
The newly-combined global HR leadership team were coming together for the first time at the Zurich headquarters and the CEO was going to be opening the meeting and addressing the HR team. I was really looking forward to the meeting and the opportunity to focus on the growth and performance strategy and to hear what the CEO had to say about the role HR would play.
I then realized that my 5-year-old daughter’s birthday assembly at school would be taking place on the first day of the HR conference, at exactly the same time that the CEO would be addressing us. I had always had a full-time job and had remembered one piece of advice from another Mom: “Don’t ever miss the birthday assembly.” I went back and forth in my mind. I was concerned about getting off on the wrong foot with my new boss by not attending the start of the meeting, and wondered if would I be making a career-killing decision if I explained that I would be attending the birthday assembly and would fly to Zurich in the afternoon but would miss the CEO’s address.
Did you notice that somebody’s missing from this story? Somebody else who could have gone to the birthday assembly? Somebody with a penis?
You read articles like this all the time, usually under some heading that says, in many words or few, “Women can’t have it all.” But what these articles call “having it all” and treat as an impossible fantasy — being a good, loving parent without sacrificing work ambition — is what men call “daily life.”
And that’s part of the problem. If you start from the position that raising children is a colossal amount of work, and that fathers are not going to participate in that work, then, yeah, women have some very tough choices to make. But only one of those assumptions is a fact of nature.