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Although we are not posting while we redesign this site, we could not let the recent Rush Limbaugh-created circus go by without comment. For anyone living under a rock, simply “Google” his name to find one of the hundreds of stories about Limbaugh’s terrible remarks (i.e., slut, prostitute) about Sandra Fluke, a young woman testifying before Congress about birth control.
The facts are simple. First, people resort to name calling when they do not have a cogent argument. Second people should never call women a slut or a prostitute (or any other horrible name) simply because they disagree with their point of view.
Those are the facts—period—end of discussion. So, if a family member, friend, neighbor or colleague attempts to engage you in a discussion of this tawdry episode, here is all you have to say: It is simply inappropriate to call women offensive names—period—end of discussion. If they argue, you have our permission to roll your eyes as you walk away.
Cynthia and Steve
I was about to write a post on the need to focus on the upcoming presidential campaign now if we are going to end sexist remarks on the campaign trail (think Donald Trump as a candidate). Then I tripped across a wonderful column in Newsweek entitled “How to be a Real Man.” I have written a lot on this site about the need to stay positive so I decided to practice what I preach. Instead of giving any ink to outrageous remarks this week, I direct your attention to the author of “How to be a Real Man,” Dan Mulhern, husband of Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan.
Apparently, after reading Newsweek’s April 26th cover story about how the current recession has left many men feeling shamed and powerless, Mulhern composed a letter to his son Jack, which was printed in the May 1st edition of the magazine. He talks poignantly about what happens when a couple’s career paths shift from the traditional model, as theirs did, sharing both his initial feelings of vulnerability and the ensuing “tremendous gains.”
I’d say more—but the fact is—I can’t say it better than Mulhern, as exemplified by the following statements from his letter: “You need not fear strong women, or dismiss gentle men,” and “A strong man, Jack, is not threatened by others’ greatness. He’s comfortable with his own.”
Mulhern closes his letter to Jack by saying, “It is a great time to be a man.” I love his positive conclusions about the value of evolving gender roles, and I am going to seek out more examples of courageous men to share on this site. In fact, this might be an approach worthy of our consideration—spending less time responding to the sexist commentary of the small-minded, the misinformed, or the intentionally cruel—and more time supporting the men who understand that real equality for women will only exist when there are also new life choices for men.
The women’s movement had (and continues to have) a powerful and positive impact on the lives of women and girls here and around the globe. Now men like Mulhern are hoping to do the same for the boys.
p.s. Mulhern writes about leadership at danmulhern.com; see his site for information on his new project: StrongMenSpeak.
Do traditional attitudes about who should be children’s primary caretaker affect women’s career chances in this recession? One study indicates the answer is a resounding yes.
Two sociologists from Wichita State University released an analysis in 2009 of men’s and women’s employment after a layoff. It turns out that women have a harder time getting a job after they’ve been let go than do men. But some women do worse than others. Single women without children fare about as well as men, according to the study. But women with children, in the words of the researchers, “have a greater burden to prove that they’re committed to their job as opposed to being committed to their family.” And it appears that employers are holding women—but not men—to that criteria.
Could it be then that some of the most damaging forms of sexist expression are those that imply that women have primary responsibility for child care? That men shouldn’t have to think about the impact on their careers when making decisions about child bearing? That when a couple does have a child, it’s the woman who should compromise? It’s those ideas that give rise to books like this one asking whether women might be better off to choose early in their lives between having a child or a career. That is the wrong (and quite sexist) question—the right one is why it’s only women who have to decide.
Keep the Wichita study in mind the next time you hear a cutting remark about couples that have stay-at-home dads (right now, such couples make up less than 1 percent of the total; couples with stay-at-home moms comprise at least 19 percent). People who take seriously the idea that both fathers and mothers can assume the primary caretaker role are setting an example that is essential to improving opportunities for our country’s women and girls. And since many men might prefer to spend more time with their children, they’re also widening the choices available to parents of both sexes.
On April 9, Michael Toole, a Pennsylvania judge convicted on corruption charges, was sentenced to 2½ years in prison. After the sentencing, an incident occurred involving another judge that hasn’t gotten much play. Judge Ann Lokuta, who works in the same court, happened to walk past a group of the convicted judge’s supporters in search of a bathroom. One of the supporters was court employee Jim Dougherty, who allegedly yelled to Lokuta, “The men’s room is over there.” According to a witness to the event (a newspaper reporter) everyone in the group laughed. Judge Lokuta has filed a complaint with the state Supreme Court judge for an inappropriate sexist comment by a court employee. Judge Lokuta said that the motive for Dougherty’s comment is longstanding animosity directed at her by Toole and his allies.
Such slurs directed against women in power are all too common. We heard them when Janet Reno was head of the Department of Justice. We heard sexist brickbats of all types directed at Hillary Clinton. Rush Limbaugh called Senator Mary Landrieu a “high-class prostititute,” and Senator Harry Reid called fellow Senator Kirsten Gillebrand the “hottest member of the Senate.”
No one doubts that these accomplished women can ignore such comments and move on—they wouldn’t be where they are if they hadn’t endured a career of rising above demeaning remarks. Comments like these happen every day in our workplaces, neighborhoods, and families. And they do real damage—a study last fall found that when it comes to female politicians, for example, slurring the candidate with sexist names such as “ice queen” and “mean girl” undercuts her political standing far more than does criticism of her policies.
So if what happened to Judge Lokuta occurred as reported, then someone in that crowd should have had the courage to say, “No, that’s inappropriate,” “Hey, that’s not cool,” or “Hey, leave the sexism at home buddy.”
Judge Lokuta is standing up for herself, but she shouldn’t have to do that alone. Every time that someone else has the fortitude to speak up, it gives another person the courage to follow their example the next time. And conversely, it makes potential perpetrators more fearful of launching a sexist slur—because next time, they just might find themselves as the object of disfavor.
Recent events have made it strikingly obvious that something needs to be done to change how women and girls are treated in America (not to mention so many other places around the globe). This includes violence against women, women’s reproductive health care being used as a bargaining chip during budget negotiations, and the ongoing parade of sexist commentary in movies, on television, in political campaigns, etc.
We have encouraged visitors to this site to find their voices when confronted with sexist comments, but we acknowledge that might be a lot easier said than done. So this week, we offer up a few suggestions for taking action that don’t require you to directly confront anyone for making a sexist remark:
For one year, put a nickel in a jar every time you hear someone makes a sexist comment. At the end of each year, tally up the money and write a check for the amount to the National Organization for Women (or your favorite women’s group) and send it off with note asking them to use the money to help end sexist remarks.
Write to your elected leaders, who have a legal and moral obligation to represent both genders equally and fairly, and let them know that you want them to put an end to sexist remarks during campaigns, media appearances, and when they are governing.
Talk to your kids (in a manner appropriate to their age) about the harmful impact of sexist remarks on girls (their sisters, themselves, their friends). We may not completely stop sexism in our lifetime, but we certainly can put our hope and energy into the next generation being able to do so.
These are three simple things that you can do without risking a friendship, a job, or family relationships. Choose one or all three and get started today. Take action!!
I have been thinking a lot about abortion this week. First, Congress used Planned Parenthood (and the issue of Federal funding for abortions) as a bargaining chip during this month’s budget standoff (visit Think Progress to read about how Senator Kyl’s (R-Arizona) staff admitted that his statements about the amount of money Planned Parenthood spends on abortion “was not intended to be a factual statement” and read 5 Myths about Planned Parenthood in the Washington Post). Then the Susan B. Anthony List launched a campaign against Planned Parenthood, basically calling the organization a fraud. Their radio and television spots claim that Planned Parenthood runs abortion clinics rather than providing women’s health and reproductive services (Read more about the campaign at Huff Post.)
Regardless of your position on abortion, don’t you find it odd that a woman’s right to choose is so often positioned as the central wedge issue during government budget negotiations, and political and organizational campaigns, fundraising, and other maneuvering? It is an effective strategy because abortion is such an emotionally charged word. More than a decade ago, a group of famous women ran an ad that displayed their names under the heading: “I had an abortion.” The goal of the campaign was to make the word less powerful when used to define women in relation to a highly personal decision that most do not make lightly.
We have said it before and we will say it again—words matter. This is especially true when they are used to divert attention from more important issues (e.g. focusing budget negotiations on funding for abortion rather than what is needed to restore our country’s crumbling infrastructure) or to divide us into opposing factions with little opportunity for compromise. Apparently our leaders believe that women’s control over their lives is a legitimate bargaining chip, and their use of emotionally-loaded language to talk about abortion does little to advance thoughtful discourse on an issue they claim to care about.
Our congressional leaders need to learn that negotiation does not mean war and that doing your job correctly does not mean letting tasks slide to the last possible minute and then creating diversionary tactics as a cover for poor performance. Just imagine your supervisor’s reaction if you and a colleague declared yourself at an impasse and felt it best to let the work of the company come to a grinding halt. Most important, they need to learn that good governance, like all good leadership, requires more than highly charged rhetoric.
We can change this—starting with the seemingly small but oh so powerful act of speaking up when someone around you makes a sexist remark. We can change this by demanding that our leaders use responsible language when discussing sensitive issues rather than inflaming the sensibilities of everyone around them. We can change this by holding elected officials accountable for doing their jobs and letting them know that we want a lot less speechifying and a lot more positive action.
We can change this. Let’s start now.
We’ve gotten accustomed to periodically being shocked by yet another tragic mass shooting in yet another apparently safe venue. College campuses are no exception—especially since the tragedies in 2007 and 2008 at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois, students and campus staff well know that the picture of universities as safe cloisters of learning is no longer a reality. So today, administrators are scrambling for ways to prevent future tragedies.
Doing something about easy access to automatic weapons might help. But failing that, one academic has an idea for another place to start. Michele Paludi, Director of the School of Management at New York’s Union College, thinks that schools need to take a new approach to violence prevention.
Paludi believes that incidents of intimidation and violence on campus have reached epidemic proportions—one of every 20 college women is raped, and 20 percent of college students experience intimate partner violence, for example. Her research argues that those acts, and crimes like mass shootings, become more common when “lower order” forms of campus violence—like sexual harassment, sexist remarks, hazing, and bullying—are ignored. She notes that 20 to 80 percent of college women report being targets of sexual harassment by peers or faculty.
Prevention, she argues, requires that colleges establish safe, nonretaliatory reporting procedures—effective and enforced policies about things like sexual harassment and sexist remarks, and training programs for the entire campus, including faculty. (Those ideas are especially pertinent since the Obama administration’s recent announcement of new requirements for colleges and universities regarding preventing sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus.)
If you’re considering working with your campus to establish policies designed to stop sexist forms of expression, you might consider drawing on her research. Her book Ivory Power: Sexual Harassment on Campus received the 1992 Myers Center Award for Outstanding Book on Human Rights in the United States.
If Paludi is right that ignoring sexist remarks, harassment, and other forms of intimidation makes violence more likely, then faculty and administrators ignore it at their peril.
Can you imagine not being able to vote, buy your own home, or control your money? Those concepts are unthinkable in today’s America (but certainly are still true for some of our sisters around the globe). As Ellen Chessler, Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, says in her March 2011 article, “How Women Became Citizens”:
“It’s hard to fathom today, but for most of human history, and even into our own time, it was simply assumed that women had no need to acquire identities or rights of our own — except, of course, those enjoyed by virtue of our relationships with men.”
Chessler’s article is worth reading for its brief history of women’s rights and to remind ourselves of how slowly the wheels of change turn. She helps us to understand that some of our earlier (and most important) victories were cloaked in the concept of protectionism—focusing on taking care of women rather than promoting their rights—to ensure acceptance of the changes.
Most important, Chessler’s article reminds us that we stand on the shoulders of women like Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Margaret Sanger, who dared to speak about women’s rights in a time when it was unimaginable to do so. I second Chessler’s impassioned plea that we must not let them down by allowing current political forces to turn back the clock.
We stand in the middle of so many generations of women—our powerful predecessors who took enormous personal risks to help redefine the roles of women, and our daughters who never knew a time when women were not allowed to go to school or work outside the home. We need to seize this moment to keep the dream of gender equality alive.
Imagine that it is 1848 and you believe that women should have the right to vote. Stanton did and she launched the suffrage movement. Then imagine what might happen if you decided today (almost 200 years later) to speak up about sexist remarks—either in the moment that they happen or by working with other women to create change in the educational, religious, and political institutions and systems that influence our lives.
End note: As I was writing this post, I heard that Geraldine Ferraro had passed away (March 26th). I remember the night in 1984 that she was nominated as the Vice Presidential candidate of the Democrat party (almost unimaginable at the time). I sat on my sofa, with tears streaming down my face (as I later learned so many women across America did), thrilled at the very sight of this smart, articulate woman and excited about what her candidacy meant for all women. I got choked up again today at the loss of her. But Ferraro’s life reminds me of the power one woman has to change the world—living as if we can is the best way to honor her legacy.
The February-March issue of Bust magazine ran a story about the experiences of five women bloggers who have, as the article puts it, “written honestly about their sex lives” on their sites. Now, you and I may not be comfortable spilling details about such an intimate topic, but these women do. As the article notes, however, these are not pornography sites—while a few are salacious, they often treat the topic thoughtfully and seriously.
Of the five women profiled in the article, all five lost their jobs, one is in a child custody battle, and all were the target of volumes of hate mail. Women speaking openly about their sexuality is a sure ticket, it seems, to discrimination and abuse.
And how does that compare with the experiences of men who do the same? As the article notes, male sex blogger Tucker Max has been exempted from such treatment. And try reading Norman Mailer or Henry Miller sometime—their graphic, if literary, descriptions are as explicit as it gets.
That situation mirrors what happens in another arena: the unequal treatment of men and women involved in the sex industry. The women caught in the trade are routinely prosecuted at far higher rates than their male customers. In 2007, for example, Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter was found to have been a client of a prostitution ring. He was never prosecuted and still doesn’t admit to doing anything illegal. But Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the madam who ran that ring, faced five to six years in prison after her conviction—she committed suicide before she could be sentenced.
There’s a word that captures that double standard, one so often employed to degrade and delegitimize women—the word “slut.” That it’s only applicable to women indicates that it’s a proxy for the different treatment afforded to men’s and women’s sexuality. And when it’s used, it has real-world consequences for women and girls, as the Bust article shows.
So if we hear that word, I propose that we respond much as we would if we heard the “n” word as applied to race: “You know what? That’s a really offensive term.”
I’m a fan of words, but this one has to go.