How hard is being a feminist?

Mar 27 2011 Published by under LifeTrajectories

As I have discussed before, the community of bloggers I try and keep up with has been a tremendous resource for me to learn much much more about feminism than I had previously known or even considered. I'm not proud of how easy it was for me not to think about the issues women regularly face in science, academia and society, but I had the privilege of being insulated from those problems. I figured if I wasn't contributing to the problem directly, I was doing my part to help.

I like to think of myself as being less naive these days and more proactive. I've tried to address several things I can control in my work environment and made a number of concerted efforts to promote female colleagues and students. In many small ways this has paid off, but I also realize I'm hardly scratching the surface.

Nothing has brought that quite to the fore like a conversation I had while traveling not long ago. I was discussing the representation of women on a particular high-profile committee with a male colleague and in his explanation for why there were so few, he produced such a mind-numbingly sexist argument that I thought I had been instantly teleported into a bad after school special (if they had ever done one on sexism, that is, and not smoking). The more his explanation wound around the Pole of Stupidity from whence it started, the more I thought there was sure to be a punchline. There wasn't.

But in retrospect, what bothers me the most was my reaction. There I sat, basking in the sulphuric stench of a monologue that could basically be summed up as "Ya know, girls just aren't as smart as men." and the self-content look of someone thinking "I read that on the internet, so it must be true" and how did I reply? In previous conversations with women who related similar offenses they had to suffer through, I was always able to suggest a witty response to put that asshole in his place! These jerks need to be embarrassed! And here was my chance.

I had little to lose but some social awkwardness. No one was going to call me a ball busting bitch, shrew or harpy. I had little to fear in terms of career consequences or being black balled and what was my pithy retort? I managed "you can't really believe that." before changing the fucking subject. That's right, with the opportunity to dismantle a blatantly false argument taken directly from the oldest warehouse of the patriarchy, I froze and redirected the conversation. Way to help out.

Dude. Fuck. Sigh.

The benefit I see from this encounter, however, is that I am now slightly more prepared to be broad-sided by ignorance. I am a little more ready to respond in a way that lets the person know I think they are full of shit without putting them on the defensive and making an enemy. I may not have a handbook of witticism at the ready, but at least this is making me think about how I would counter the absurd in the future. Maybe it's not a silver bullet, but it's a step.

13 responses so far

  • Props on recognizing the assattery & for admitting you froze. It takes guts to admit it online. At least you'll be prepared next time.

  • I have faith that you will have many opportunities to
    improve your record. It's hard to say something witty when your jaw
    is still on the floor. I find that the most offensive monologues
    are quite long which helps me construct a reasonable answer. After
    all, it is ok to nod for a while before
    disagreeing forcefully.

  • BBBShrewHarpy says:

    Your reaction may have been more effective, actually,
    because your changing the subject after expressing disbelief was
    likely taken by him (providing he is in any way self-aware) as your
    showing embarrassment for his asshattery without attacking him. Had
    you responded with pithy wit, he would likely just have felt
    betrayed by a fellow patriarch and would have disliked you for it
    without reconsidering his views. This way he will know he laid a
    stinker on a reasonable fellow and might even think some about what
    he said. Ok, maybe not the latter.

  • fcs says:

    Don't be so hard on yourself. Honestly, it's extremely difficult to confront someone about sexism/racism/ableism in real time. Especially if it's someone you have to interact with on a regular basis, or are just getting to know.

    That fact that you recognized it and thought about it speaks exceptionally well of your character. And maybe as BBBShrewHarpy says, perhaps your response was exactly perfect for this interaction.

  • KateClancy says:

    I think it's pretty great that you even said "You can't really believe that." And the last thing our allies need is to self-flagellate. You did great, and you'll do even better next time.

  • CoR says:

    Like the tag this is filed under.

  • Bashir says:

    Even the small things can be hard to respond to...

    Once while chatting with labmates I mentioned that my wife and I do not share the same last name. One of the RAs blurted out "What is she some kind of feminist?"

    In the intervening half a second I tried to figure out if she was serious or not, and think of a pithy comeback. I was unable to do either (in retrospect I think she was kinda serious). All I could offer was an unsatisfying "uhhh yes"

  • Dr. O says:

    I've been completely taken aback a couple of times by douchebag ignorant statements, and I think their stOOpidity is why I don't have a logical (or witty) retort at the ready. The imaginary conversation in my head that follows over the next couple of days often puts me to shame. The fact that you're using this experience as a reason to develop a response is nothing to sneeze at - really. And you deserve major props for the fact that you said anything to the contrary of this idgit.

  • chall says:

    well, to be fair - he might not have listened anyway... and I think the "you don't belive that do you?" and leaving the subject is sometimes the thing to do. Like someone said in the comment, he _might_ realise that you thought he was a moron... but likely he probably thinks he's the man and nothing you'd said there would have changed it ^^

    [The stunned and quiet reaction is the survival one; analogous to the "he's not touching me there is he since that would be odd and ... yes he is... ending in 'why didn't you slap him/scream?' 'i was too surprised that it even happened and then he was gone'" situations (a bit over the top for analogy but a fairly common 'feministic' one ^^]

  • gerty-z says:

    Almost every time something like this happens to me I find myself at a total loss. I guess this is why it is called "mind numbingly stupid"? I hope that you are able to come up with something better next time, though it sounds like you handled it pretty well.

  • leigh says:

    trust me, that was *not* the last opportunity you will have.

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    I managed "you can't really believe that."
    This is better than what I've been able to muster. And I'm with leigh. It will not be the last opportunity you/we have.

  • [...] I bring this up because there are professional contexts where this concept is pretty useful. Certainly this is true in instances of misconduct, but I'm specifically thinking about sexual harassment. If you think this isn't still a problem in science, you might just have your head up your ass. I hear several stories a year about a female scientist being subjected to some form of inappropriate conversation from a (usually senior to them) male scientist. I've seen it in action and even been directly confronted with this stupidity. [...]

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