Whoa, not keen on that reaction

You may recall my comments on that article about the sexism panel at NASW. It was an oddly glib summary of the panel that gave cursory attention to the women’s statements, and spent most of its time discussing the reactions of men in the audience — it was a sad example of how even women will prioritize men’s voices. Emily Willingham gave it an even more thorough and scathing review.

Tabitha Powledge and Beryl Benderly, the authors of the original review, then fired back at Willingham. It was a terrible angry reply: Powledge and Benderly basically belittled Willingham for being too young to understand, and ranted about having been Second Wave Feminists who created the environment that allowed Willingham to be employed…and they also literally called what Willingham had written to be a “cat fight”. It was ugly. Real ugly.

You can’t read it, though. The post was taken down by the PLoS Blogs community manager, although the comments are still left intact.

PLOS BLOGS has determined that the “On Science Blogs” post that had occupied this page violated one of the key principles we hold for our blog network, specifically, the following language which is included in our independent blogger contract: PLOS is interested in hosting civilized commentary and debate on matters of scientific interest. Blogger will refrain from name calling and engaging in inflammatory rhetoric.

Because, after careful review, we’ve determined that this post crossed the line delineated in this tenet, we’re taking the post down. We’ve left the comments intact.

We’re sorry for any distress that the content of this post caused to the target, Emily Willingham, and hope that discussion and debate can continue on the original and vitally important topic of sexual harassment without resorting to this level of exchange.

Yikes. While the post may have been hideous, I don’t like the idea that it could be deleted like that. Leave it up, close comments, make a statement that it was not acceptable, but erasing it is something I find even more offensive.

Willingham has updated her post with this comment:

The two people involved in the post I critique below, Tabitha Powledge and Beryl Benderly, NASW board members, have posted their comments about my critique here. I will let their two responses speak for themselves and just reassert that the original post was an example of the problem in having foregrounded men in every aspect, from text word counts to links included to who was named and quoted to art to tags to “the most powerful and significant statements came from men,” and that the tone of “back to our regular program” was inappropriate. Further, I add that because I was commenting on a high-profile summary of a very high-profile and edgy situation that is critical to our community, one written by a board member of NASW and featured on the site of another NASW board member, I also vetted my commentary with half a dozen relevant people before posting it. As for a formal post about the NASW panel from the panelists themselves, of which I was one, we await availability of the video recording of the proceedings so that the overview will be complete.

Right — it’s a “high-profile and edgy situation”, so I’d rather see that both sides of the argument were left visible.


  1. anchor says

    “I’d rather see that both sides of the argument were left visible.”

    Absolutely. Why is it that people or organizations find it so difficult to own what they’ve said? They can also own the benefit of reevaluation and retraction. Not by hiding stuff away though.

  2. felixBC says

    Here’s a pastebin of the deleted post, which was still on google cache.



    Willingham is apparently insulted that it did not instead catalog panelists’ various examples that women are treated unfairly in the workplace—cases that may have come as news to some, but not to me or others who have been contending with discrimination in the workplace since before Willingham was born. I can certainly excuse Willingham for lack of first-hand familiarity with the much harsher discrimination that my own and, especially, earlier generations experienced, but I’m surprised that her undergraduate English major apparently failed to acquaint her with such works as Virginia Woolf’s matchless explication of the subject, “A Room of One’s Own.”


    Welcome to Mud-Wrestling and the Manufactured Cat Fight

    Sheesh. You’d think Beryl’s report last week was a celebration of sexual harassment and an example of the (formerly) worshipful endorsement of serial harasser Bora Zivkovic. Instead of what it was: a thoughtful, accurate and entirely sympathetic report on the NASW meeting session on The XX Question. Which you wouldn’t know if you had based your judgment solely on Emily’s outlandish rendering. Here, read what Beryl said. Not much resemblance, is there, to the description embodied in Emily’s ad feminam cracks and reflexive cant?

    I especially like “ad feminam cracks”, while making them.

  3. Pteryxx says

    more from Benderly: (bolds mine)

    I must also admit that this whole dust-up surprises me, because Willingham is proud of her credentials as a scientist. I suspect that she may therefore have heard of the concept of priority in discovery and publication. Well, distressing though the panelists’ descriptions were for them, they revealed nothing that Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Elizabeth Blackwell or Rosalind Yalow or Sandra Day O’Connor or Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Shirley Chisholm or Simone de Beauvoir or Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan—or countless millions of women, including, for that matter, Tammy and me–hadn’t already said. I’m pretty confident of this because, as it happens, I know the history of women in America, having written a book on the subject in collaboration with a leading historian for a major New York trade publisher. So I, as a reporter who respects the folkways of both science and journalism, decided to focus my report not on what was old about the session but on what was new.

    and Powledge:

    The women’s testimonies that Emily believes were the most important for the session were painful and hugely significant in their own lives. But there wasn’t much news there.

    Women have been complaining to each other about this stuff forever, and Beryl and I have been paying attention to the complaints, and doing some complaining of our own, for decades. (OK, since you asked, let me tell you about the time I was fired from quite a good job because I declined a departmental transfer that would have put me under–no pun intended–a colleague who had hit on me. Routine behavior back in the last century, nothing new here either. But the pièce de résistance was that he also wanted me to write all his stuff. And just at that point I was freelancing regularly for the New York Times. Let’s see, Emily would probably have been in elementary school then. Learning to count, I suppose. )

    Counting Words and Counting on Men

    What was news, as Beryl reported, was that the scales have fallen from men’s eyes. One of the most fascinating features of l’affaire Bora has been the testimony, sometimes quite pained testimony, from men. Male bloggers who admired Bora Zivkovic and believed (correctly) that he had opened doors to new voices at SciAm and boosted the careers of women, were forced to come to grips with the fact that he was also given to creepy, sex-laden, persistent, unpleasant, unwanted conversations with some of them.

    Those testimonies from men continued at the NASW session. We learned once more that decent men have been clueless. Smart men, men whose work we all respect, have had no idea what their women colleagues (and some men) have been put through. But now that consciousness has been raised, at least some men seem resolved to work for change. And they said so at the XX Question session.

    This is not only new news, it is marvelous news. That’s because, as women have lamented forever, men have most of the power. But that means they can do more than most women can to alter this interminable bias-and-sexism narrative. All the decent men–husbands and lovers and fathers and brothers and sons, especially the ones with power over other men–can speak out and get this stuff to stop.

    Okay, so… leaving out all the stuff about how Willingham’s uneducated and ignorant and a bad scientist and can’t count (…srsly, scientist-writers? srsly?) … how does it follow that men suddenly starting to get a clue is marvelous and wondrous in its own right? Did the men start cluing in because THEY read all the works of “Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Elizabeth Blackwell or Rosalind Yalow or Sandra Day O’Connor or Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Shirley Chisholm or Simone de Beauvoir or Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan—or countless millions of women, including, for that matter, Tammy and me–” … or did the men at this panel session start realizing and speaking up about supporting their colleagues because of, oh I don’t know, personal stories that were “painful and hugely significant in their own lives” from the women speakers at the session?

    It wasn’t decades of feminist writings and history, nor yet women complaining to each other as Benderly and Powledge mention here, that got those responses from men in the audience. It was women speaking about their personal experiences. Maybe that seems like too cheap and easy a victory to the veterans.

  4. says

    To be fair to PLoS, you can’t set rules for bloggers on your site and then let them slide when they break them. Given the PLoS business model, their blogging network is never likely to have the same leeway that, say, FTB has for naming and shaming violators.

  5. Pteryxx says

    and in the cached comments, Jennifer Ouellette said it much better than I did:

    I get what you’re trying to say — we need/desire men as our allies to effect broad cultural changes, which is true — but your diminishment of the voices and actions of women, even now, is kind of appalling. I, too, have been experiencing such things and hearing such stories for many, many years. (Really, you think decent men being shocked at the degree to which women suffer from harassment is “news”? Good men have long been shocked by such revelations.) But let us not become so jaded and world-weary that we fall victim to the ingrained cultural assumption that men’s voices are invariably more significant than women. As long as we continue to do so, those power dynamics will never change.

    I’m reminded of a story Bernice Sandler, of chilly climate fame, told a couple of years ago, about how she realized that despite decades of fighting on behalf of women in male-dominated spheres, during a panel she found herself checking her watch only when the women were speaking, and paying more attention to the men — because of course those voices were the “Important” ones. She realized she, too, suffered from unconscious gender bias, and resolved to only check her watch when SHE was speaking from then on. Her point is that we all have our blind spots and can fall victim to ingrained cultural attitudes even after years of feminist activism.

    We’ve come a long way. We’ve still got a ways to go. And elevating women’s voices and experiences to the same position of authority as men’s is a very big part of continuing that journey.

  6. octopod says

    Just a nitpick here, but is “ad feminam” ever a necessary phrase? “Homo” is, as far as I know, not gendered…?

  7. chrislawson says


    A good compromise, I think, is to have an area off the main page where redacted posts are archived. The only reason for deletion is if the post is clearly defamatory, in which case even hosting the post on archive page might be seen as contributing to the defamation.

    OTOH, the way the internet is now there’s almost no such thing as deleting a post. Someone somewhere will have it archived.

  8. lymie says

    Holee sheet, from the original. How how how do they get there. sigh

    Welcome to Mud-Wrestling and the Manufactured Cat Fight”

  9. says

    Just a nitpick here, but is “ad feminam” ever a necessary phrase? “Homo” is, as far as I know, not gendered…?

    True. If they were trying to be accurate, they were wrong. But I doubt that was it. I think they were trying to be cutesy toward their target and chose to do so with a variety of classic misogynist slur.

    Among the many things that undercut their argument. And undercutting an argument that wasn’t good to begin with is probably not the best practice.

  10. Merlin says

    I respect your position, PZ. I even understand and agree with it. The same goes for PLoS, though. If they had left the post up, they might have been seen as endorsing the break from their terms of service. Their platform would still be contributing to abuse. I find their actions refreshing, as they acknowledged the issue with the post and acted in accordance with their rules on it. I could only wish other sites were as consistent in their enforcement (lookin’ at you, Facebook…)

  11. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Oh Gad, but that article is too long and snippy to read before my morning coffee.

    Too bad they couldn’t invest half as much effort into the first one.

    I did skim the thing and I need to call bullshit:

    Those testimonies from men continued at the NASW session. We learned once more that decent men have been clueless. Smart men, men whose work we all respect, have had no idea what their women colleagues (and some men) have been put through. But now that consciousness has been raised, at least some men seem resolved to work for change.

    In fact, I call several bullshits.

    First: Clueless? Had no idea?
    Absolutely none?


    Yeah, they weren’t aware of the extent. They probably weren’t aware that some offenses were offenses. But I don’t for a moment believe, that if they are as decent and respectable, they had no idea. With probably a couple of exceptions who walk around like a stereotypical oblivious scientist, if they really are as decent as claimed, they must have noticed and learned something.

    Second bullshit:
    Then there’s of course all that great marvelous beautiful unbelievable work that women like the two authors have done, you know, the one Emily is supposed to be grateful for. All that work for feminism, and it has taken this conference to raise the men’s consciousness? All that talk from women who complain and complain about the same things over and over again, and men had no clue? Nada? Not even a hint?

    But now this one talk, the one that doesn’t matter to be mentioned in more than a couple of wordsbecause who the fuck cares about women whinging again, has raised consciousness. Hail the men’s consciousness for being raised! Yay!

  12. Forelle says

    Merlin at 12:

    I respect your position, PZ. I even understand and agree with it. The same goes for PLoS, though.

    I agree.

    What a horrible reaction to criticism, what an ugly disheartening spectacle. The comments left at PLoS were enough to have an idea of Powledge and Benderly’s position (if it deserves that name at all), and the bits quoted here fit very well with those comments. I also find quite unfortunate the discredit on second wavers. Good to read, though, that they were called upon both their posts in such forceful, reasonable ways.

    I’ll only add that, if they were so happy about the “huge” novelty of decent men being surprised (something that Ouellette and others also touched upon), why then this sentence (my italics)?

    We learned once more that decent men have been clueless.

    That “once more” surely precludes the novelty, right?

  13. wcorvi says

    I thought we fought this fight thirty years ago, and moved past it. I’m sure glad to be retired now, and just a lurker for the most part.

  14. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Powledge, in comments, about prioritizing men’s statements:

    As we keep saying, sympathy and solidarity from men is not the point. History repeatedly shows (e.g., the civil rights movement here, Gandhi’s liberation movement in India, Mandela’s in South Africa) that change comes when people in power commit to change and take action to advance it. This session was different because we heard from men who have the power to promote changes in other men’s behavior, and who committed publicly to doing so.

    My comment is not yet through moderation (for context, it was made middle-night for USA east coasters, and is now only 7:30am there), but this shows Powledge’s willingness to base her arguments on bodies of fact of which she has little, if any, relevant knowledge.

    From my not-yet-published comment:

    You really think that the apartheid government “committed” to change? Not at all. The apartheid government was committed to resisting change.

    What happened was not a commitment to change on the part of the powerful. What happened was that sufficient numbers of persons with nearly-no power gathered together to donate the next-to-nothing each had into a substantial whole. Even if they didn’t have the power to directly dominate the government, as a movement together they had the power to inflict real consequences on smaller targets, one at a time.

    Afraid of being picked off (politically or otherwise) one by one, members of the apartheid government saw the best way to preserve their power – the best way to change the least – was to relinquish formal government.

    But make no mistake, this was not a commitment to change. From the white supremacist government’s perspective, this was a choice between bad options. They fought a rear-guard action in constitutional negotiations the whole way.

    We all get our facts wrong from time to time, and I hope y’all call me out when I do (I recently misread the NJ electoral situation recently b/c of assuming things are now as they were in 2008-2010 when I was last speaking with folks in the region about Christie). But this is the kind of pernicious myth that ought to be nipped in the bud. Change in SA came from the commitment of whites in power, indeed.

  15. says

    I submit that, if decent men are still being caught off-guard by the prevalence of sexism and harassment, the second wavers can’t really claim all that much credit for advancing the cause.

  16. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Monitor note:
    Please remember to stick to the topic of the OP.

    Stay on topic, unless it’s an obvious “fun” thread. If you have something off topic that you must share, the Thunderdome thread is always appropriate.

  17. John Horstman says

    felixBC linked a Pastebin post of the page above; here’s the Google cached version in case anyone’s interested: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:blogs.plos.org/onscienceblogs/2013/11/15/yet-more-on-sexual-harassment/ (there’s a link at the top of the copypasta, but it has some extraneous script variable declarations).

    Wayback Machine only has a grab from the 18th after the post had been removed. Moving on…


    Because of Emily Willingham’s unfair and inaccurate attack on my brief report on the discussion of sexual harassment at an NASW session, I feel compelled to delay work on multiple paying assignments and do something I on principle almost never do, write for free for publication.

    Woe is she, not being paid to share her opinion. Never mind being granted access to a platform to amplify her voice to reach thousands or millions more people than I, for example, ever will – now she has to do so FOR FREE; it’s an absolute travesty, apparently. I’m a White man born into a household in the top 5% in the USA, with access to excellent schools and global travel throughout my entire life, and even I have a hard time imagining that level of privileged entitlement. Somehow it manages to be downhill from there, but the crux of the problem is right there – these women are not used to being called out for their internalized sexism; they’re possibly not used to being called out for any reason.

  18. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr says

    Sally @ #18: Well said.

    Unfortunately, I have seen in a number of places, some older feminists who confuse having done activism many years ago with being infallible, and tending to resort to rather intense misogyny and vitriol when it’s pointed out that they may have stepped in it, inadvertently or not. The tendency to blame other, often younger, frequently more intersectionally focused feminists is also pretty common. Which is really unfortunate.