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.