Category Archives: Feminism

No such thing as “gender neutral” language – Creating safe spaces in Skepticism

Roman Woman in Pompeii

Roman Woman in Pompeii

I was challenged the other day for stipulating that there should be no “ad hominem or ad feminam attacks” in the Skeptics in the Pub UK and Ireland Facebook Forum.

The challenge was a linguistic one, on the entirely accurate basis that:

There is no such thing as ‘Ad feminam’, and its use displays a mis-understanding of basic Latin. ‘Ad hominem’, although grammatically masculine, is actually gender-neutral.

Here is my response.

Skepticism has earned a reputation for being an “unsafe space” for women. I am not going to go into the rights and wrongs of how it earned that reputation here.

The best way to stop Skepticism being an unsafe space is by setting the lead and making it a safe space, and one way to do that is by sending out strong signals and backing them up.

There are many ways of sending out those signals. In Edinburgh Skeptics, for example, we make sure that women members of the committee or women volunteers are active and visible at every event. (This is easy right now because there’s currently only one male committee member, but the numbers ebb and flow). [This paragraph has been edited for clarity].

Another way to do it is with language. Language frames our thinking (a few of us have additional tools such as mathematics and other modelling tools, most of us only have language). So language that silently writes out half of humanity should be resisted by Skeptics whether we are feminists or not if only so we can think accurately about the situations we are in.

You fell for the equivalent trap to “mankind” means all of “humankind” – technically it may do, but it was almost always men who said so. (I read a book in the 70s that explained that babies were weaned too young, and “when the child grew up he became fixated with breasts” as a result…). Gender neutral language can be bad for your thought.

We do not live in ancient Rome; “ad hominem” may have been gender neutral there and then, but here and now it writes out women.

I chose to add in “ad feminam” because it explicitly says “we will not let women be attacked for being women”.

Given that women who speak out online are regularly the subject of rape-threats and death-threats, and given that skepticism has earned a reputation for being full of straight, white cis-men who are members of the academy and who will stay up late arguing because there is Someone Wrong on the Internet, I wanted to signal very explicitly that – in this forum at least – attacking a woman for being a woman is not ok, and I wanted to put men and women on equal terms.

So, I stand by my linguistic error: it helps us think more clearly as Skeptics and it makes it possible to have safer, more inclusive and more diverse spaces for Skepticism.

Plus, as I said in my first post, [I had replied earlier more light-heartedly] it amuses me. Not only, but also. (I am SO over the binary).

Dressing down

I had an argument today with a friend of friend about Sarah Millican’s dress.

Some background for you, in case you’ve missed the story.

Sarah Millican is a comedian who was nominated for a Bafta, had a wonderful evening and was eviscerated on Twitter for the temerity of having breasts. She was devastated but responded magnificently and very good for her. Millican was betrayed by her dress which she says looked lovely in the shop but which really didn’t look great in the photographs. This happens, the camera is a bastard at times. As she pointed out she’s a comedian not a model and has never learned to walk or pose in front of cameras.

What was egregious about the response to Millican’s dress was not that it was commented on, but that it was commented on in public.  There is a whole sub-specialty of fashion journalism dedicated to being bitchy about women on the red carpet. And then there is twitter. Oh lord.

I commented in a closed thread on Facebook about other choices Millican could have made and was roundly bollocked for doing so.  But I am English, and was brought up not to be rude to people to their face. Other people think we are a culture of hypocrites because we will comment discretely behind your back. The internet makes this hard, of course. Hence twitter storms.

However, I really felt for Millican. I have more or less the same figure and I never know where to put my tits in a photograph. I end up being so self-conscious when I know there’s a camera around that I always have the shifty look of someone who’s just wet themselves. The only photographs of myself that I like are ones where I didn’t know I was being photographed, or where I’ve given up responding to the camera at all.  So in this thread of doom I was reflecting on my own experience: I too face the difficulty Millican describes of finding clothes that I like and fit.

Two months ago I had my photograph taken for a national paper, one of the ones with a circulation in millions not tens of thousands, and it’s not an experience I enjoyed. I was more resigned than nervous; nervous is for situations where you have some agency. I settled for looking groomed rather than attractive and thought about what to wear for weeks beforehand. I had my hair and nails done,  I wore a highish necked dress and a waterfall cardigan that cut vertically across my boobs. The photographer hated the fact I wore black. If I had known, I’d have worn a different colour. I like to be helpful and he seemed to know his job. the piece has not yet been published, but I will probably ask someone else to read the comments thread for me. The ironic thing is that the story isn’t even about me.  Oh well.

I am so sad that Millican’s bubble was burst after the Baftas. She is a talented person, and deserves so much better.

Feminist mammoths

The current upswing of feminism is rightly re-igniting debates about bodies and judgementalism.  As the meme goes

If you want a bikini body, put on a bikini

The idea that our bodies are there to be judged is common-place and getting more-so.  In the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame  women step out, we show off, we reveal and display ourselves (our long legs, our cleavages, our baby bumps, our  holiday tans and bikini bodies), we bare ourselves.  In relationships we are happy, proud, smiling, or with mystery men.  In Dacre’s world, women cannot do something for its own sake or for ours, only for our audience of watchers or because of a man.

I  have a tattoo.  (Stay with me, it’s not as wild a change of subject as you’d think).  I could never see the point in a tattoo I couldn’t see, so it’s on my forearm and I chose mammoths because I like them.

They raise the question though, of who is the tattoo actually for?

It’s hard to work out what they are, especially from a distance. The design is based on cave paintings and is an awkward mix of line-drawing and shade. The only time they’ve been complimented spontaneously was once in a pub when I stood up with my arm held horizontally, reaching for the back of a chair.

Mammoth Tattoo 01 Mammoth Tattoo 02

In Daily Mail terms they are a failure. But from my (literal) perspective, they are great, and I love them.

Mammoth Tattoo 03

I like seeing them trample down my arm towards whatever it is I am doing. (Hitting “post” in three… two… one….) They are a comforting sight first thing in the morning.  They even have names, though I am ashamed to admit this.

So, is a tattoo for person who has been tattooed or is it for other people?  Well, as it turns out, this particular tattoo is for me.

These aren’t just mammoths, they are feminist mammoths,

Cupcakes (Not Safe for Work)

I ordered some cupcakes for a raffle, as a tie-in to a humorous talk on pelvic floor exercises by @gussiegrips – her website explains more about her work.

The cakes were made by Vanilla Kisses in Edinburgh @VKCupcakes

I am very grateful to Dawn for the fabulous photos.

The cupcakes stole the show.

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Somewhere to escape to

I’m struck that we don’t have a folk-memory of women escaping from domestic captivity in the way that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight have escaped in Cleveland, and Elizabeth Fritzl and her siblings, and Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, Shawn Hornbeck and Natascha Kampusch escaped before them.

The stories of these escapes are new.

Women being captured is not new, it’s not even specific to our species. At a recent Skeptics in the Pub Talk, Dr Alison Craig told us about “coercive consortship” in dolphins.

Women running away isn’t new either. Allegedly, Wilkie Collins took the title for his book “The Woman in White” from his first meeting with Caroline Graves, the woman who became his mistress. Collins was walking through London one night past a suburban villa when

“the iron gate leading to the garden was dashed open, and from it came the figure of a young and very beautiful woman” ….  she had been imprisoned at the villa under the mesmeric influence of an unnamed suburbanite.

What appears to be new, is that the escapes are successful, they are reported, and the victims are reunited with their families.   Today Caroline Graves’ story would be international news. But in the 19th century it was not told by the men who witnessed her escape. (Of course, it may not be true).

There are so many possible reasons for this change.

It is finally clear that a man who prevents a woman leaving him is committing a crime not exercising a right.  A line has emerged between a consensual domestic relationship on one side, and imprisonment on the other.  This is new. In the 19th century and before, you would have happy love-matches on the one hand, pragmatic civil contracts and arranged marriages in the middle, and who knows what hells of captivity and servitude at the far end.  Then, as now, a good marriage could go bad. But how many young women were kidnapped in a world where the neighbours all assumed they were wives not prisoners?

Women are free to leave in a way they weren’t before. Divorce gave women the the legal freedom to leave. Before divorce was available, women were chattels in a very literal way. I was checking references for the Mayor of Casterbridge auctioning his wife and  I found a Wikipedia entry about Wife Selling, which  apparently took place as recently as 1913. Later, women gained the cultural freedom to leave. However, in living memory in the 1970s and 1980s what went on behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors and the police would not intervene.  Putting it bluntly, if a woman runs away now, whether she is a wife or a kidnap victim, she will be listened to.  There is somewhere to escape to now.

But I think there’s more to it than that. We see the victims as unambiguously innocent and wronged. When there is no religious fundamentalism or misogyny at work we do not see them as someone whose moral worth has been destroyed. However, Elizabeth Smart said:

… she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.” …

I have tried to find out more about Smart’s upbringing in Salt Lake City to discover if it was particularly religious. She certainly expresses herself powerfully:

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.'”

Smart felt worthless as a result of her repeated rapes but we see her as a victim not as “damaged goods” and  we celebrate when a kidnap victim escapes.  And if we have not yet managed to stop blaming the victims of rape we have at least progressed  beyond flogging them, stoning them or forcing them to marry their rapists.

So I am encouraged by the fact  that when victims of kidnap and imprisonment escape they now do so into the relative safety of a supportive and rejoicing world.

Woman reads gossip

Woman reads gossip

Woman reads gossip (stories cut and pasted from Daily Mail website 19th June 2010)

One of my dirty little secrets is that I click through the Femail section of the Daily Mail when I’m drinking a cup of tea of a morning.

The triviality of the stories is bemusing, but they are shamefully addictive too.

Today for example:

  • Woman wears bikini
  • Women meet at husbands’ works do
  • Woman gets better
  • Woman may be pregnant
  • Men watch football
  • Man watches girl
  • Woman gets into car
  • Woman wears dress
  • Woman wears high heels
  • Woman goes to spa
  • Woman has cellulite
  • Woman’s too thin
  • Woman’s too fat

There may some social sciences research right there: Why do we read it? Women like gossip, perhaps.

There’s definitely some none too subtle normitivity:

don’t be fat,

don’t be thin,

don’t be ugly,

do be pretty,

do get pregnant…

150 years of feminism, and this is what we get?

Oh my.

What’s in a name

In four weeks time I have to decide whether or not to change my name.

It would be a lot less awkward if I’d reverted to my maiden name after my divorce, but I really could not be bothered. My maiden name is not spelled the way it is pronounced and my first name has its own difficulties, so one of the pleasures of early matrimony was no longer having to spell out both names letter by letter every single time.

It seems discourteous to marry one man and use another man’s name, but I’ve got used to it. It trips off my tongue and spells itself easily and if you google it, it’s mostly me that you find.

To my shame, this last may be the deciding factor.

Oh, the patriarchy… Decisions decisions. Perhaps I should just choose another one altogether and be done with it.

Maybe I’ll call myself Ms Rose.  That way I’ll still smell sweet.