Posts Tagged ‘jessica valenti’

More than you might think.

Especially for us women, who are often sabotaged by words in ways most of us don’t even recognize.  Language, says Santa Clara University professor Laura Ellingson, an expert on gendered communication, can shape our thoughts and perceptions, uphold double standards, and reinforce stereotypes.

Half the time, we don’t even notice.

All this came to mind this weekend when I came across a piece in the New York Times by business writer Phyllis Korkki, who explored the reasons why women’s progress into the top tiers of the workforce had stalled. Many of those reasons related to entrenched — and often unconscious — sexism. No real surprises there. But one paragraph in particular caught my eye:

[Ilene H. Lang, president and chief executive of Catalyst] maintains that unintentional bias is built into performance review systems. Words like “aggressive” may be used to describe ideal candidates — a label that a man can wear much more comfortably than a woman.

More comfortably?  There’s an understatement for you. Which prompted me to start making a list of other ways in which words can keep us in our place.

One of the first contenders in my  double-standard category — after aggressive, of course –is “ambitious”.  An ambitious man is the type of guy most parents want their daughters to marry.  But an ambitious woman? Think Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada”.  The media tell us ambitious women are calm, cold and conniving.  They not only lose their friends, but their bedmates, too.  Which may be why, as longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts once wrote in a piece titled “The Scarlet A” in Elle magazine, owning our ambition may be the last taboo:

Over the past three decades, I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most celebrated women: queens and princesses, senators and rock stars, moguls and movie legends, first ladies and fashion titans. Some were barracudas whose appetite for power would make Machiavelli look like a pushover, but only one ever owned up to being ambitious.

Ouch. Another double-standard for the A-list is “assertive.”  For men, that’s an admirable trait. When they step up and ask, they often receive.  For women? We often don’t bother to ask. And when we do, we run the risk of being tagged pushy.  You know, not feminine. Or, a little more charitably, “feisty”  Which itself is more than just a little demeaning.

Santa Clara University communication professor Charlotta Kratz, whose area is the portrayal of minorities in the media,  points out that performance evaluations are often based on the measurement of what are generally considered to be male traits.  Organization — think linear thinking — is one.  Another is the fact that while women process — we talk things through —  men act.  “Process is female, action is male, and the female talk gets looked down upon as unnecessary,” she says.

True, that.  And then there are words used to characterize our moods. When a male colleague goes wiggy on us, we’re likely to say “he’s lost it.”  As in, momentary aberration.  When a woman does the same, however, she’s often dismissed as “emotional” (read: bad).  Or “menstrual” (read: worse).  Or even menopausal (read: worse yet).  In any case, not to be taken seriously.

Let’s not forget the tear factor. When Speaker of the House John Boehner wept on “60 Minutes” a while back, he was “sensitive.”  When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton cried back in 2008 when she was on the campaign trail, she was portrayed as “emotional” — there’s that word again — as in not presidential.

Other double standards have to do with parenthood. As we point out in Undecided, studies show that a female employee who wears her mom-hood on her sleeve is likely to be perceived as a flight risk.  Other studies, however, show that when a man plays the dad card, his stock often rises.  He becomes a “family man”.  To wit: what a guy! What’s funny is that when that same mom stays home with the kids while dad takes a business trip, she’s, well, home with the kids.  Turn the tables, and dad is babysitting.

Language slaps our personal lives into submission as well:  A woman without a mate is either unmarried — as in, poor thing — or a spinster. Ugh.  A man in the same boat, however, is single. Or better yet, a bachelor. We all know what that means. He’s a catch.  Throw sex into the equation and we’ve got another humdinger of a double standard.  When it comes to bedroom action, as Jessica Valenti wrote in the first essay of her book of the same name: “He’s a stud, She’s a slut.”  Enough said.

The list goes on.  When a man takes charge, especially in the boardroom, he is forceful.  A good thing.  When a woman does the same, especially at home, she’s often called controlling.  Likewise, when a man pushes his staff to the limit, he’s a good leader.  His female counterpart? Excuse the term: A ball-breaker.  Even clothing carries its own weight.  As Ellingson points out, when a male prof wears an old pair of jeans to class, he’s cool.  When a woman does the same: sloppy.

Back to that piece in the New York Times, Korkki hits on another double standard that comes to kick us in the bank account: the ability — or lack of same — to self-promote.  It’s a plus for men, who are expected to “showboat a little.” But women? Not so much. We’re expected to be modest, to praise others instead of ourselves.  Or else we’ll take a dive on the likability scale. Which might, in fact, jeopardise our position. But you know what’s coming next: if there’s a promotion to be had, you can guess who’s most likely to get it.

Ahem.  Word.


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Guess who’s calling herself a feminist? I’ll give you a hint: she doesn’t read much but cooks a mean moose chili, and while she isn’t a big fan of hopey changey stuff, she has been known to engage in such enlightened chants as “Drill, baby, drill.” (Though she’s been conspicuously quiet on that subject as of late.) Oh, and she’s super-mavericky, too.

Yeah, her. Sarah Palin’s taken to calling herself a feminist (never mind the fact that, during the 2008 Presidential campaign she told Katie Couric that, no, she was not a feminist)–and many other self-described feminists are none too thrilled about it.

And, frankly, I’m terrifically torn. Yes, a part of me believes that a part of the reason young women are so reluctant to call themselves feminists is because, at times, the movement has seemed been exclusionary. Elitist. Historically, such charges aren’t entirely unfounded. I have even argued that, to my mind, Feminism can be boiled down to the simple idea that women are people.

So why aren’t I jumping up and down, welcoming a woman from the other side of the aisle to the party? Well, just being a woman isn’t enough. And being a woman who’s championed causes antithetical to the interests of women as a whole certainly seems like an adequate deal-breaker, doesn’t it?

The ultimate irony may be in the event at which Palin dropped the F-bomb (upwards of ten times) itself: It was a speech given to the Susan B. Anthony list, an anti-choice group. During the speech, she said the suffragettes were the real feminists (disregarding all that’s come since–you know, like the women who fought to pry open the doors through which Palin walked to get where she is today)–and that they were pro-life. She went on to disparage pro-choice feminists, suggesting that, by championing a woman’s right to choose, they’re really saying they just don’t believe women can handle motherhood and work, and

send this message, that ‘Nope, you’re not capable of doing both. You can’t give your child life and still pursue career and education. You’re not strong enough; you’re not capable.’ So it’s very hypocritical.

Implicit in such a statement is, of course, the idea that that woman who’s capable of doing both will have the benefit of enough support from the social structures around her to make it possible to do both–an argument that’s tough to make, given, you know, the ERA that was never passed, the fact that we’re still underpaid and underrepresented, not to mention the issues of inadequate, unaffordable child care and–until recently–health care (reform of which Palin feverishly campaigned against).

But back to Palin and her F-bombs. Jessica Valenti, who made a compelling argument that Palin’s feminism is not feminism at all, but rather disingenuous pandering for women’s votes come midterm time, lays it out thus:

A related strategy for Palin and fellow conservatives is to paint actual feminists as condescending hypocrites who simply don’t believe in young women… Palin’s “pro-woman sisterhood,” however, “is telling these young women that they’re strong enough and smart enough, they are capable to be able to handle an unintended pregnancy and still be able to… handle that [and] give that child life.” (Unless of course, these young women were unlucky enough to live in Alaska when then-Gov. Palin cut funding for an Anchorage shelter for teenage moms.)

Ahem, who you callin a hypocrite, Sarah?

But then, just when you’re ready to banish her from the kingdom forever, there’s this, from Meghan Daum at the L.A. Times.

The word in question, of course, is “feminist.” It may be the most polarizing label on the sociopolitical stage (it makes “environmentalist” or even “gay-rights advocate” seem downright banal), but Palin seems to have stopped dancing around it and finally claimed it as her partner. Granted, this is a conditional relationship; there’s a qualifier here as big as Alaska…

Now, there are a lot of ways in which [Palin’s] logic is contorted, not least of all the suggestion that supporting the right to choose represents a no-confidence vote for the idea of mothers leading fulfilling professional and personal lives. But putting that aside, I feel a duty (a feminist duty, in fact) to say this about Palin’s declaration: If she has the guts to call herself a feminist, then she’s entitled to be accepted as one.

Now, while a part of me agrees with Daum’s perspective, another part of me agrees with the in-your-face take offered by Kate Harding, who wrote on Jezebel that:

The problem is, words mean things. I could start calling myself a red meat conservative, or campaign for those of us who are against the death penalty to “reclaim” the term “pro-life,” but at some point, the relationship between your beliefs and your choice of words either passes the sniff test or it doesn’t. And someone who actively seeks to restrict women’s freedom calling herself a feminist is, not to put too fine a point on it, a liar. There’s a difference between a big tent and no boundaries whatsoever; if Palin’s “entitled to be accepted” as a feminist just because she says she’s one, then the word is completely meaningless–as opposed to merely vague and controversial. And I might just start calling myself a “right-winger” because I’m right-handed, or a “fundamentalist” because I believe everyone deserves a solid primary education, or a “birther” because I once hosted a baby shower.

Is she or isn’t she?? More troubling that all of this, to me, though, is this: it seems that what’s really happening here is that feminism is again being reduced to an issue of reproductive rights. Don’t get me wrong: I happen to believe a woman’s right to choose is critically, critically important–and while I find it nothing short of ludicrous to call an anti-choice argument “feminist,” something (else) about this entire debate rubs me wrong (and not just the high-school-clique-ish nature of the whole does she belong or doesn’t she question). I just think that every time we frame feminism as about abortion rights and nothing more, we take the focus off of what it’s really all about. And that is, of course, that women are people–people who deserve equal access, representation, freedom, pay, and support from all aspects of the social structures that circumscribe their lives. And while feminism may indeed be nothing more than the radical notion that women are people, a feminist is someone who puts her money (or her votes) where her rhetoric is. So, Sarah, call yourself whatever you want. But talk is cheap–and your record speaks for itself.


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I was being interviewed by a journalism class last quarter when a student asked me if I was a feminist.

“Of course,” I shot back. “Aren’t you?”

She looked at me, somewhat quizzically. “Well,” she said, “how do you define feminist?” To which I replied, perhaps too glib and maybe even borderline cranky, “A human being.”


I continued, something along the lines of: It means you’re in favor of equality. Equal rights. Equal pay. Equal opportunity. Blowing up gender stereotypes.

My turn to be quizzical: “How can anyone NOT be a feminist?” I asked.

Really. I believe that. Which is why I am baffled, flummoxed, dangling on the precipice of wild-eyed disbelief when I am reminded that in 2010 there are still people who find the need to marginalize those of us who believe in the radical idea that women and men are equals and should be treated that way.

Most recent case in point, via Huffpo: the cyber-dust-up between jezebel.com, and Scott Baio, he of “Happy Days” fame, which recently escalated into the stratosphere when Baio’s wife referred to the jezebel staff as “lesbian shitasses” on her Facebook page, saying no man in his right mind could put up with their – well, never mind. Let’s just say it was a deeply offensive reference to a part of the female anatomy.

First fail: “lesbian” as perjorative. Not cool. But look closer at the rant: why that particular brand of diatribe? Could it because the Jezebel bunch are known feminists?

I suppose you can dismiss the Baios as weirdos. Outliers. But for a more subtle reality check re the way feminists are still marginalized, look for the subtext in this Q-and-A on dollmag with Jessica Valenti, founder of feministing.com and author of “Full Frontal Feminism” [Full disclosure: her publisher, Seal Press, is also ours.] In this first exchange, she talks about the persistence of sexist comments:

How do you deal with misogyny and sexism on a day-to-day basis? For example, what do you do if a friend makes a sexist comment?

That’s one of the hardest things. It’s easier for me because my friends know better than that now. For most women that’s a daily occurrence, and they have friends that make sexist or racist or homophobic jokes. It’s really important to call them out. I don’t think you need to call them out in a really confrontational way— (in an)”oh my god, you’re a sexist,” kind of way. But you can say, “why do you think that’s funny? I actually find it kind of sexist.” And leave room for conversation. People can get really defensive and you don’t want to make people defensive, you want to open it up for conversation and hopefully open their mind up about it.

In another exchange, she briefly addresses the media ruckus that ensued when she wrote about her “feminist wedding” — as if, her critics seemed to imply, the term itself was an oxymoron:

You seem very open about your life, and you often relate feminism to your personal experiences. Have you ever shared anything you’ve regretted later?

Pretty much always. I thought that writing about my wedding would be a good way to open up a conversation about (the fact that) we need to have more feminist weddings, but it just opened me up to a lot of attacks. Anyone who writes about their personal life regrets part of it at some point.

(Salon.com’s Broadsheet featured a roundtable piece on whether Valenti’s decision to get married was feminist, which she found “bizarre.”)

When I started blogging under my real name, I never really thought it would get to this point, that (Feministing.com) would have this kind of readership. I often wonder if I could do it over again, if I would blog under a fake name. Maybe I would. Maybe my life would be a lot easier in some ways. At the end of the day, I’m happy that I’ve been forthcoming. I feel like it has made people relate, and it has made the subject (of feminism) a bit more approachable for readers, so I’m okay with it.

All of which makes so much sense. But what’s bizarre to me is that, again in 2010, we somehow need the reassurance of knowing that, wow, a “real person”, someone like the rest of us, is also a feminist in order to make the subject approachable.

We’ve written quite a few posts about feminism in this space, but one early post put the F-word front and center:

Are you a feminist?

A loaded question. But why?

When I was in college, I drove a car I inherited from my mom, a cute Cabriolet convertible which came affixed with one piece of flare: a bumper sticker that read, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Radical indeed. A neighbor asked me if I was going to take it off. Take it off? “Well, you’re not a feminist are you?” she asked. I was too stunned to come up with a response other than, “I’m female–of course I am!”

At its core, that simple sentiment–that women are equal people–is, indeed, what the movement is about. But somewhere along the way, it came to mean a great, tricky, amorphous Something Else. Something that carries a stigma, to this day. Something that has young women yes- or no- but-ing, when they’re asked whether or not they claim the F-word.

That post generated quite a few responses. One of my favorites came from a young lawyer who suddenly realized that the answer to that question was yes:

I have never considered myself a feminist for this reason: I always thought that feminism involves more than just fighting the little daily fights that are personal to me (i.e., knowing I am entitled to equal pay and equal opportunities, and demanding those things for myself). Because I am not involved in feminist causes, and do nothing to champion the rights of other women, I never thought the feminist label applied to me.

Thanks for this perspective, Shannon. Maybe I am one of “them” after all.

Well, of course she’s a feminist. Aren’t we all?

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