Quantcast

«

»

Feb 23 2013

The Special Lady Who Is Better Than All Other Ladies Because She Is One Of The Guys

Amanda Marcotte wrote a brilliant post on the peril of being a pioneer and looking down on everyone who isn’t a pioneer.

I’ve been watching with interest as Harriet Hall—a doctor, a skeptic and a blogger at Science-Based Medicine—flails around in her very determined but bizarre effort to denounce Women in Secularism (where I’ll be speaking, so come on out!) and all other efforts to improve women’s participation in atheist/skeptic movement stuff: It’s an amusing performance that veers between embracing deterministic arguments (she’s fond of the women-just-aren’t-as-into-that-rationality-thing-and-that’s-just-how-it-is-and-why-question-it argument) while insisting she is too a feminist, and, in the grand tradition of internet rabbit holes, getting into a long, digressive, but admittedly interesting debate about the meanings of words like “gender”, “sex”, “identity”, and “orientation” with Will at Skepchick. Hall has an interesting pedigree as a pioneering pilot and flight surgeon, which has been wielded to exempt her from criticism for her ideas, but which I say means that it’s important to be even more careful when examining her biases.

That last link goes here, to The heroic standard is too high, which started from a tweet by Sara Mayhew.

If a retired US AirForce Col. who pioneered as one of the 1st female pilot and flight surgeons voices critique about your feminism, listen.

She was (without saying so) talking to me, because I had just had the temerity to dispute something Hall said in her emails to Shermer which he quoted expansively in his hit piece on me in Free Inquiry. Here’s some of what I said in reply to Mayhew, because the argument is still going on.

I do (as I have repeatedly said) admire Hall a lot for the pioneering. But it doesn’t follow that I have to agree with her “critique about my feminism.” I don’t agree with it, and that’s partly because I think she is making her own pioneering the standard for others, and that that’s a seriously bad idea. Here’s why.

People shouldn’t have to overcome barriers that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

That’s all. People who do overcome barriers are admirable, yes, but it doesn’t follow that everyone should be admirable in that way, if the barriers are human creations that are not necessary and are in fact retrograde and unjust.

The Little Rock Nine were incredibly brave pioneers, and I admire them immensely. But they shouldn’t have had to be. It shouldn’t have required enormous courage for nine teenagers to go to school. Malala Yousufzai is brave beyond belief, but she shouldn’t have to be. Jessica Ahlquist bravely faced massive vicious harassment, but she shouldn’t have had to.

And however much I respect people for being pioneers, I’m not going to let that substitute for a good argument. I think Hall’s claims are mistaken and that she does a terrible job of backing them up with argument. The fact that she was a pioneer doesn’t change that. (I find I can no longer honestly say I admire her for the pioneering, because she has been so persistently and immovably unpleasant and vindictive, and so incapable of admitting any error.)

Back to Marcotte.

 …it’s important to be even more careful when examining her biases.

Why? Well, it’s not a given that if someone is used to being one of the few or even lone woman in a group of men that her instinct is to kick down doors and try to get more women involved. On the contrary! It might end up reinforcing a belief that men are braver/smarter/more logical/etc. for ego-flattering reasons. If you’re the lone woman, you can tell yourself, “Most women aren’t cut out to play with the big boys, but I’m the exception. I’m spectacular!” Admitting that there might not be more women because of institutional bias and discrimination—and working to get more women into the game—would mean you lose your place as the Special Lady Who Is Better Than All Other Ladies Because She Is One Of The Guys.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that Hall went from being the special lady in the boys club of the Air Force to being the special lady of the skeptical world, one of the rare female faces in a sea of men. Being the token woman makes you feel powerful, after all.

It’s something to watch for. Hard. As I’ve mentioned, I used to feel that way a bit, because B&W seemed like a pioneer, not least because most of the commenters were male. Marcotte has been there.

I confess, in the early days, the temptation to not participate in all this and instead to enjoy being one of the few women in a sea of men was strong. But I also knew it was bullshit, because I know in my heart of hearts that men are not smarter or better than women, and thus being “one of the boys” was no more an honor than being “one of the random people picked off the street”. So I threw myself into the project of linking women, doing panels on “women in blogging”, promoting women’s work, highlighting smaller blogs written by women, etc. The story is a lot more complex than that, but this post is getting a little long already, so I’ll leave it at that. I’ll just say that in the end, women banding together and helping each other out paid off way more than trying to grab the Token Lady spot; the thrill of being one of the guys can’t hold a candle to the pleasure of living in a world where women actually get respect.

And a world packed with women who get respect because they are terrific bloggers and/or writers.

31 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Maureen Brian

    Excellent!

  2. 2
    Didaktylos

    Sort of the Margaret Thatcher Effect …

  3. 3
    evilDoug

    To do something, even if you are the very first to do it and you do it against great odds, does not, by default, make you a pioneer. If others take up what you have done and make advances on it, you were indeed a pioneer. If not, you were simply an anomalous endpoint. If you insist that what you did was as good as it should get, you are a barrier.

  4. 4
    tonyinbatavia

    Reminds me of the phrase, “Pioneers get the arrows; settlers get the land.” Except Hall wants everyone who follows her to also get the arrows while she now helps the natives keep the land. Hardly a true pioneering spirit.

  5. 5
    Argle Bargle

    Being a pioneer is usually admirable but not always. Being President of the United States is such an uncommon achievement that only 43* men have held the office in the past 230 years. That doesn’t mean I have any admiration for George W. Bush and not a whole lot for Obama.

    Hall was a pioneer for women in the U.S. Air Force. Good for her. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t a jerk at TAM or that her excuses for being a jerk are reasonable.

    *Grover Cleveland is listed as the 22nd and 24th presidents because Benjamin Harrison’s single term came between Cleveland’s first and second terms.

  6. 6
    Jadehawk

    don’t wanna have to unpack all the ways comment #4 is problematic; let’s just say that fighting oppressive social structures in nothing like land-theft and genocide.

  7. 7
    Margaret

    In my long-ago school days, I read something contrasting pioneers, who opened up the West by being the first to move there and making it easier for others to follow, with the fur traders, who just went there for their own economic reasons and did nothing to open the West to others.

    You, Ophelia, were a pioneer who helped open up internet writing to women. Hall seems more like a fur trader. She is entitled to the money and glory from her hard work, but any actual pioneering she did seems to have been by accident.

    (Of course, those who “pioneered” the West were actually stealing the land from the people who were already there, but that does not apply here. Jobs do not belong to men. Women are not a different society from men.)

  8. 8
    Margaret

    Phooey. That’ll teach me to refresh before posting.

  9. 9
    tonyinbatavia

    Understood, Jadehawk. The better point is Ophelia’s; these barriers should not have to be overcome in the first place. Please disregard my message at #4, with apologies.

  10. 10
    JoeBuddha

    There are two things two remember IMHO.
    One is how someone helped to change the paradigm. This is worthy of respect, and should be remembered.
    The other is that the paradigm has been changed. Does the one who helped change it understand?
    I’m reminded of Frodo’s speech at the end of LOTR: It has been saved. But not for me.

  11. 11
    Martha

    Amanda Marcotte’s analysis is excellent– as is so often the case.

    We should also remember that the women in those pioneering generations who encouraged other women in spite of the temptation to feel special in their status deserve extra credit for their perceptiveness and commitment to making the world better for generations to come. There are a lot of those remarkable women around, so we do have to be careful not to assume that there’s an inverse correlation with age and willingness to look out for other women. That just isn’t true, as Ophelia and Maureen and so many others here can tell us.

    There is one other factor that might be relevant to the discussion of Hall. I ran across this recently, when I read Joan C. Williams’s “Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.” Chapter 3 is devoted to studies of the effects of masculine norms in the workplace on the evaluation of women, and I recommend it to any woman working in a male-dominated field who finds herself second-guessed about her perceptions of unfairness. Anyway, one of the issues Williams raised is that female superstars are judged very differently from other women ( (p. 95, Kindle Edition):

    Women who are excellent but not stellar are judged much more harshly than comparable men. While women who are superstars tend to get even higher evaluations than comparable men (who knew a woman could do it?), women who are merely excellent tend to get sharply lower evaluations than comparable men.

    The reference she cites (which I haven’t read myself but just pass along in case someone else is interested) is: W. Linville & Edward E. Jones, “Polarized Appraisals of Out-Group Members,” 38 J. Personality & Soc. Psych. 689, 691-69z (1980).

    That’s a fairly striking finding, and it would take a remarkable woman indeed to notice that she’s being reviewed more positively than men, but that her peers are reviewed less positively. It’s also reassuring to those of us who count ourselves in the “merely excellent” (!) category.

    I don’t know if Hall was seen as a stellar in her career, but it’s hard to imagine that the “who would have thought a woman could do that?” trope was absent.

  12. 12
    M. A. Melby

    I’ve been meaning to blog about this subject at some point – not about Hall specifically – but that “one of the guys” thing.

    I was not a pioneer the way Hall was, but I experienced pioneer-light being one of the very few female physics majors back in the early 90′s.

    I think the issue is bigger and broader than being the “token” female “pioneer” – but that there is a lot of attention and praise that goes to women who are interested in male-typical things. Those things are considered inherently better than silly female things. (sarcasm there) Oddly, being interested in MALE things is a great way to get MALE attention as well.

    If you doubt me – go into a group of men, tell them you love 1) shooting guns 2) some random misogynist band 3) gaming 4) football and 5) pornography – and that you are an engineering student who plays drums.

    Then go into a group of men ans tell them you love 1) cooking 2) Tori Amos 3) blogging 4) gymnastics and 5) cuddling – and that you are a nursing student who plays flute.

    Being involved in male-dominated fields is a one-way ticket to being considered exceptional – and even LIKING random male-dominated hobbies will get you noticed.

    It just will – regardless of WHY you like those things.

    For a LONG time I sought out male-dominated environments and I experienced the same type of attention and acceptance (and challenges) that many women do when they do that – but in the end (though many of the very exceptional people that I met gave me real respect) you realize that you are an outsider and any little poke to the status quo or stepping out of line can cause “the crew” you thought was celebrating you, to turn on you. You realize that being able to endure indignity and abuse is not it’s own reward – and “the crew” doesn’t really have your back – and even most of the good ones break under the social pressure to exclude you.

    The Blag Hag post that instigated the A+ idea resonated tremendously with me.

    It’s part of the much larger: “if you support the patriarchy – it will reward you” thing. I spent an afternoon (a long time ago) on anti-feminist “girlwriteswhat” youtube and it was glaring. The men commenting on her channel were worshiping her like some sort of goddess; cause she was telling them what they wanted to hear. The dynamic was so obvious; for goodness sakes it’s her username – “girlwriteswhat” – that she gets attention and admiration for saying the same old crazy anti-feminists stuff guys do all the time while being female.

    If only that lone male who loves Tori Amos and is going into nursing would be as celebrated.

    A girl can dream.

  13. 13
    dgrasett

    I always thought that if you succeeded in an area where matters and societal pressure are stacked against you, it behooved you to help others like you get there too. I wanted to study pure math. That didn’t happen. By happenstance, I had two daughters instead. I do not regret the daughters, but I would have appreciated a chance at the math.
    Now that I know what that rather unattractive t-shirt was about, I would be more than willing to wear one in bright red that reads PROUD TO BE A SKEPCHICK. And, if they were available, provide a few for others.

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    I like that T shirt idea.

  15. 15
    smhll

    The Little Rock Nine were incredibly brave pioneers, and I admire them immensely. But they shouldn’t have had to be. It shouldn’t have required enormous courage for nine teenagers to go to school. Malala Yousufzai is brave beyond belief, but she shouldn’t have to be. Jessica Ahlquist bravely faced massive vicious harassment, but she shouldn’t have had to.

    I think you make an excellent point.

  16. 16
    georgemontgomery

    The Little Rock Nine were incredibly brave pioneers, and I admire them immensely. But they shouldn’t have had to be. It shouldn’t have required enormous courage for nine teenagers to go to school. Malala Yousufzai is brave beyond belief, but she shouldn’t have to be. Jessica Ahlquist bravely faced massive vicious harassment, but she shouldn’t have had to.

    Exactly so. Having to be a “pioneer” in this sense means that there is something wrong with the system.

  17. 17
    Jason Failes is too lazy to sign in today

    Hey, I like Tori Amos!
    (Although I kind of lost interest after “To Venus and Back”. She was increasingly experimental and interesting through her first five albums then seemed to retreat into a piano & sadness comfort zone.)

  18. 18
    jose

    Isn’t the counter argument Marcotte offers (that being actively inclusive has worked and continues to pay off -you only need to compare current con lineups with 10 year old ones-) more important than this personal characterization? I mean, first, we don’t really know if Hall responds to that sort of “pioneer syndrome” or not. It’s possible but we don’t know. Second, what she says is right or wrong regardless of what she is or what she wants. So even if she did just want to just be speshul, she still could be right. So what’s the point?

  19. 19
    M. A. Melby

    Jason

    That is awesome.

    All my female friends LOVE her, but I never got into her music as much as they did. I’m more of a Bjork and NIN girl.

    Have you heard of “Y Kant Tori Read” – she is a bit embarrassed about it now I guess.

  20. 20
    M. A. Melby

    Jose – I think people are just trying to figure it out because it seems weird.

    It does NOT seem strange to me, frankly. When you exist socially in a nearly all-male environment – you get sick of your being a female being pointed at constantly (which is what she meant by “a skeptic – not a skechick”) and you do have to become “one of the guys” to survive which sometimes makes it difficult to adjust to female-dominated social environments or frankly to relate to woman.

    I have NO IDEA if this is true of Hall or not because I don’t know her well. However, that’s been my own experience – so the kerfuffle didn’t seem all that strange.

  21. 21
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Jadehawk @#6:

    #4 mostly has the right of it, unfortunate comparisons of not. A pioneer clear the way for the people behind them. A pioneer doesn’t reset the traps behind them and then beg for membership in the trap-setting tribe.

  22. 22
    Jadehawk

    I just find the “Indians vs. Cowboys” imagery deeply unfortunate. The word “pioneer” has meant “person who does something first” much longer than the specific wild-west use, and I see no reason to use this kind of problematic metaphor. hell, even the generic and even older military “scout” meaning is less awkward.

  23. 23
    Jafafa Hots

    Since her career choice was the US military, I think the coyboys vs indians comparison is a good one, but for a different reason.

  24. 24
    Nicole Introvert

    It’s scary how this seems to mirror the punk rock scene of my youth. I did this crap when I was a teenager. Punk rock was (and I assume still is) a male-dominated subculture. Back in high school I didn’t want to be anyone’s “girlfriend.” Much of the time I shooed away girls that were dating my male friends and focused on being “one of the guys.” With that came the “reward” of being payed attention to by dudes!

    It’s only now that I see what kind of girl-hate I was spewing about and how I was trying too hard for the attention I claimed I didn’t want.

    When I see women continue to do that now in 30+ adulthood it really just makes me sad.

    I suppose I find it hard to understand what the drive is about being “one of the guys” past a certain point in life. Is male attention that much of a reward for some women? The ultimate prize? I get that when you are 16 and want to make out. I find it harder to grasp in the world of academia or the skeptic community or what have you.

  25. 25
    Jadehawk

    I get that when you are 16 and want to make out. I find it harder to grasp in the world of academia or the skeptic community or what have you.

    why?
    I think you might be making the same mistake the pitters are making, in thinking that this “attention from the guys” thing is about sex. It’s not, or not primarily. Think of it this way: if “the world of academia” in your field is still male-dominated, then attention from the guys = positive attention to you as a fellow academician = better chances of advancement.
    Same with the skeptic movement; being seen as a friend of those in charge does translate to being more readily welcomed as a fellow leader. Much harder to get there f you’re fighting the existing arrangement.

  26. 26
    Jackie, all dressed in black

    MA Melby #12: My husband introduced me to Tori Amos’s music when we first met. He’d love to be a nurse. :)

  27. 27
    h. hanson

    I guess I feel fortunate now that hardly anyone asks me about my career choice. I have to admit that twenty years ago I enjoyed feeling special. It soon became a bore. And now I give them a funny look if they question me. A look that says “what a strange question”. I just want to get on with my job and I want to be known for being a good farrier not a lady farrier.

  28. 28
    Aratina Cage

    Hey, I like Tori Amos!

    Me too!

    (Although I kind of lost interest after “To Venus and Back”. She was increasingly experimental and interesting through her first five albums then seemed to retreat into a piano & sadness comfort zone.)

    That’s true to a large extent, but it didn’t stop me from loving the albums that came afterward. What disappointed me was that, despite her critical and satirical takes on religion, she never quite took the last big step into atheism and settled on this New Agey stuff. We see that happen a lot to popular musicians, sadly.

  29. 29
    Jadehawk

    oh and one more thing that seems to be a common misunderstanding:

    people who are pioneers don’t become pioneers in order to gain approval from privileged people. That would be nonsensical, since better conforming to already existing normative standards would accomplish that a lot better. Rather, they may become tempted to use “not like other women/blacks/gays/trans women” as a means to deflect some of the shit coming their way; and if you do this for long enough, especially given our society’s rampant femmephobia etc., you can quite easily come to believe that it really is a good thing and something to be proud of to be seen as “not like other [non-privileged group]” by the privileged group.

  30. 30
    Jafafa Hots

    people who are pioneers don’t become pioneers in order to gain approval from privileged people.

    They don’t?
    I mean, obviously not all do, and maybe most don’t.

    But if nobody did there would be no such thing as tokenism.

  31. 31
    Jadehawk

    But if nobody did there would be no such thing as tokenism.

    tokenism and pioneering are different things though. Pioneering challenges the status quo in an environment that’s reserved for privileged people; tokenism usually happens afterwards, because you can’t have a token until you get to the stage of “well, the very exceptional ones are allowed in”; pioneers may become tokens, like I described, but starting out as one tends to happen only after someone else already paved the path for the entrance of “exceptions-to-the-rule”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>