Threats to ovaries

Hilda Bastian has thoughts about outrage.

You didn’t need any academic theory, though, to know that wading into gender generalizations – even flippantly – was foolhardy territory for a formal guest at an event intending to honor women in science at a journalists’ conference. Progressing women’s rights to equal dignity and opportunity has always elicited outrage. But for the last couple of decades, sexist remarks and sexist jokes have, too.

This cartoon by Punch contributor, George du Maurier, comes from 1895. That was the era when anthropological claims about lower female intelligence had been losing ground as a way to keep women out of higher education (Joan Burstyn, 1973). So the ground had shifted to fanning medical fears to discourage women from higher study – nervous problems, threats to ovaries, and the like.

Cartoon taking aim at an educated woman

Du Maurier uses “ugliness” as the stereotype basis for his joke about an intellectual woman. That one was also part of the standard repertoire for demeaning suffragettes. And it’s still going strong in 2015.

Very strong. The little gang of obsessives who rage at me can’t mention me without making a point of how ugly I am. (Re-reading Mistakes Were Made is giving me some insights into why they do that. Cognitive dissonance, you see – it would be pretty disgusting if they were doing that just out of bullying urges, so they have to be doing it because I really am as evil as they say, and my evilness is revealed and underlined by how ugly I am. Thus they’re good people, doing important work, dedicating more than 4 years now to trying to silence me.)

When a rights-based complaint is seen as trivial by a group that’s strongly “anti-PC”, outrage from competing protected values can be propelled into high-speed collision. When feminism is involved, that can quickly draw a crowd that gets very ugly, and it certainly did here. Once it tapped into the rich vein of resentment many have about journalists too, it brought “Gamergate” energy and its signature torrent of extreme online abuse into the arena.

We apparently can’t say a word without drawing a crowd that gets very ugly. That crowd does a lot to make our case for us, but that’s not really very good news, since the ugly sexism they demonstrate is the very thing we want to get away from.

The Tim Hunt furor vividly highlights the extent to which concerns about everyday sexism are regarded as trivial – a minor nuisance that’s a kind of social hazard of being a woman, something to just shrug off and go about our science. As though that’s unconnected from anything serious. Yet, as Virginia Valian writes, the mountains of disadvantage women face are made of molehills “piled one on top of the other”.

Everyday, or mild, sexism (including jokes) imposes a burden of disrespect and workplace incivility. That doesn’t mean it happens to everyone, or that it bothers everyone. But workplace incivility is common, and it’s part of sustaining a climate that allows discrimination against individuals to thrive. That climate includes under-recognized and under-reported workplace harassment. And a society where there’s been no substantial drop since the 1990s, but perhaps an increase, in sexual assaultagainst young women.

Uta Frith, chair of The Royal Society’s Diversity Committee, wrote, the swift, wide, and strong reaction to Tim Hunt’s comments “was an outpouring waiting to happen”. How do you mitigate against individuals being harmed when that happens though?

We’re still finding our way through this. The analogy of storm seems to me far more useful than ones based on violence: we can shut the metaphorical doors against digital communication, not fuel it, and wait for it to pass. Apology, showing care for those other than yourself who were harmed by your actions, and not seeking personal redemption while in the eye of the storm seem to be the best outrage minimization/reduction strategies for an individual.

For the rest of us, understanding and impulse control are essential to finding a path that doesn’t encourage cruelty. But can deep, meaningful, societal change be achieved at more than a glacial pace only through non-confrontation? Historically, it hasn’t. Action can’t really be avoided if the intractable harm caused by hostility and lack of empathy to the distress of women and minorities is to really shift. The outrage isn’t just negative: it’s a sign of hope and enthusiasm for creating a better future, too.

Don’t be an asshole about it, but don’t be silent about it, either.

Seems right to me.


  1. Raucous Indignation says

    ” … more than 4 years now to trying to silence me.”

    Holy schnikies has that backfired! How do you post as much as you do? Do you even sleep!?

  2. iknklast says

    That doesn’t mean it happens to everyone, or that it bothers everyone. But workplace incivility is common

    And some people it happens to don’t actually notice it, because that’s the way things are and always have been. They don’t necessarily recognize sexist behavior as sexist because it’s normalized.

  3. Funny Diva says

    I just love (NOT!) how it’s the WOMAN in that cartoon that’s delivering the “but UGLY!” punchline.
    It’s a whole ‘nother level of awful. Man is feeling challenged intellectually, woman feels secure based on her looks.
    Faugh. I say, FAUGH! (and I mean it to sting.)

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