When Women Get Together Outside The Kitchen, It Must Be To Plot Against Men
I love Ursula K. le Guin’s the Earthsea series, and recently finished reading the final novel, The Other Wind. Those who are familiar with the Earthsea books will know that among other topics, le Guin explores traditional gender roles, their change, and men’s disparagement of women’s power. Towards the end of The Other Wind, one of the characters, Tenar, observes
How men feared women! she thought, walking among the late-flowering roses. Not as individuals, but women when they talked together, worked together, spoke up for one another – then men saw plots, cabals, constraints, traps being laid.
Sooooo true. Let’s discuss.
Disclaimer: throughout the following, “men” may be understood to refer to “men who fear women”, not “all men”.
I’ve seen this time and again throughout my career in science. One woman alone doesn’t cause too much discomfort for the men around her. They feel confident of their ability to keep her in her place. But let a couple of women get together and uh-oh! I wrote about this, along with my co-author Cynthia Burack, in Telling Stories About Engineering: Group Dynamics and Resistance to Diversity :
The unconscious group culture of engineering and its social residues can be difficult for women and minority males to negotiate without the ability to appeal to segregated spaces and the interpretive possibilities they hold. Unfortunately, when minority group members get together even in informal ways, they are likely to be labeled by in-group members as “self-segregating” and to arouse suspicion as to their motives. This happens in a myriad of ways, both small and large, creating a form of “death by a thousand paper cuts” (Knight Higher Education Collaborative, 2001:2).* Examples are not far to seek:
- Women are standing in public spaces (hallways, campus sidewalks) engaging in conversation with other women faculty or administrators. Men who know the women conversationalists comment as they pass by: “Say, no self-segregating here!” “What are you three up to?” “What are you two plotting now?” Groups of two or three men engineers gathered in public spaces for conversation are unlikely to be assailed by similar comments from either men or women.
Similarly, I recall once attending an engineering administrative staff retreat. There was only one other woman besides me at the retreat, and we were quite friendly with each other. All morning long we had been in small work groups, the two of us usually in different groups. At lunch time, we chose to sit together to chat. Around us, a sea of white males were all sitting together. Yet one of these white males felt compelled to call out in a loud voice to the two of us, “Hey, no self-segregating!” Sigh.
Women may gather together in the kitchen to talk and work without threatening men, because of course women’s work is of little consequence (a constant refrain throughout le Guin’s Earthsea cycle is “weak as women’s magic”) and anyway, they’re in there to make food for men. But outside the kitchen, there are only a limited number of reasons why women would be getting together to do anything.
- Catfight. Two women fighting with each other, generally over a man or access to a man. You know, of the Krystle & Alexis variety, which teh menz are always hoping will devolve into
- Lesbian sex. And by lesbian sex, we don’t mean an actual sexual relationship between two lesbians, we mean two women, who may or may not be lesbians, performing various sex acts on display for the purpose of giving visual erotic pleasure to men. And if women aren’t fighting over a man or stylistically kissing and feeling up each other in front of a man, they must be
- Plotting against a man or men in general. They want to manipulate him, they want to defame him, they want to emasculate all men. Whatever it is, you can be sure they are Up To No Good.
What all of these modes of interaction have in common is that men are the focus and center of women’s thoughts and actions. And women’s interests and desires for themselves are nonexistent or irrelevant. There is no conception of two women interacting with each other as colleagues, to exchange ideas, argue concepts, work out disagreements, in a discussion of issues of common concern that do not have men at the center. You know, women as independent, autonomous actors – human beings.
A recent example of the plot paranoia can be found in this long, rambling comment by Greg Laden (bonus points for referencing an imaginary catfight):
…it eventually became clear to Laden that there was a clique, “Teh Clique” he shall henceforth call it, consisting of the dynamic duo DrugMonkey and Physiprof, as well as Janet and Zuska and one guesses a couple of others. Much later, when Isis joined scienceblogs.com, she apparently tried to join this clique, was rebuffed briefly by Zuska, and then they made up and apparently Teh Clique let The Goddess in.
In this case it is difficult to tell how much of the clique fantasy is related to Mr. Laden’s demonstrated sexism, and how much due to his personal persecution complex. On a functional level, it operates the same way, however: if women, or their allies, converse with one another or act together in anyway in which men are not at the center, and especially to oppose sexism, then they must be part of a clique driven by personal pique hell-bent on destroying someone.
I understand that Mr. Laden is under the impression that he is a tireless advocate for gender and racial equity, and for GLBT rights. Why, some of his best friends are women! And yet he so consistently gives offense, and just as consistently remains tone deaf as to the nature and effect of that offense. Here’s an example from a post wherein he imagines he is talking sensitively about race:
It is an almost pure white crowd, including a couple of whitish Asian people. There was not a single darkly complected person in the room.
I am not exactly sure what a “whitish Asian” person is. I am pretty sure that it is not a good idea for white people to go around pronouncing upon whether or not a roomful of people is diverse enough based upon the skin color or those present. Frankly, I am really not sure what the hell he thought he was getting at.
Later on the same post he will also explain to you about “real diversity” vs. “sham diversity”. If you go to Harvard and you are from Nigeria, you cannot contribute to “real diversity”. Perhaps this is something like Obama not being black enough, who knows.
There is also that incident wherein Mr. Laden appears to be calling for Isis and commenter Becca to engage in lesbian sex (of the sort listed above).
Becca …. Now, what do you think would happen to me if I suggested that, say, you and Isis got on You Tube and ….
Oh never mind.
I am sure that he would claim “Becca started it” as his excuse. “I wasn’t doing nothing wrong, I was just jokin’ around like everyone else was! What, can’t you take a joke?” No matter what Becca said, there is no excuse for Mr. Laden’s tasteless remark. Certainly not from the mouth of someone who claims, over and over, to be an advocate for gender equity and GLBT rights.
Let’s play devil’s advocate; suppose Becca said something completely inappropriate, provocative, full of innuendo, and potentially offensive, in the context of a discussion on a post about gender equity. What response might we expect of a Harvard-educated, self-styled equity advocate and college employee to a graduate student in this instance? Right back atcha, and up the stakes? Or might we expect some sort of corrective response? Or, at the very least, to ignore it and say nothing? You make the call.
Through the years, I have had encounters with many, many folks over diversity issues. Over time, you start to realize that they fall into a couple of repeating categories. I am used to Unrepentant Open Misogynist, Nice Guy, Indifferent and Clueless Administrator, Politically Expedient Ladder-Climbing Administrator Who Is On Your Side Right Now, Subtle Underground Misogynist, Ignorant Jerk Who Wants You To Make Him A Better Man, Advocates for Equity-Sans-Change, and the rare Dude Who Totally Gets It. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before this mish-mash, the Unrepentant Dude Who Totally is a Clueless Sexist/Racist Who (Thinks He) Gets It (Better Than Anyone). It just takes your breath away.
(Perhaps we can explore the other types in some later posts, if you are interested.)
*(The) Knight Higher Education Collaborative (September 2001). Gender Intelligence. Policy Perspectives, 10(2), 1-9.
Bunny Rock in Zuska’s Garden
Zuska is the kick-ass alter-ego of Suzanne E Franks. When not dispensing Zuska's wisdom, Suzanne can often be found gardening, reading, or having one of her thrice-weekly migraines.
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