Friday, March 6, 2015

America's 150-year-old war on activist women

From TPM, here's another interesting column, this time by Ben Railton, on America's 150-year-old war on activist women.

Before I quote from that, let me note that this continues - to a surprising extent - even today. Women who speak out on the internet are hounded mercilessly, threatened at home and online (rape threats are particularly common), intimidated in all sorts of ways, with the intent of making their lives so miserable that they don't even want to go online anymore.

Blogs and YouTube channels of people like Rebecca Watson, for example, who become the targets of hysterical lunatics for the slightest of things, are filled with trolls who seemingly spend all their time waiting for another post or another video, so they can be the first to spew their venom and vitriol.

It's not criticism; it's trolling. If you've spent much time online at all, the difference is clear. The topic of their post or their video doesn't matter in the slightest.

Admittedly, most of these trolls - inevitably men, I'm sorry to say - don't post rape threats. But what they do is almost worse. They laugh at rape. They make jokes about rape. They minimize the threat from lunatics, and make fun of women who worry that some of these lunatics - including those who actually track them down at home - might really mean it.

Meanwhile, of course, they comment on the woman's appearance in the most degrading, sex-obsessed, slimy sorts of ways. Well, as I say, this isn't criticism. It's intimidation. Their goal is to make the woman so weary of experiencing the worst of humanity that they just give up - stop posting, stop reading emails, stop using the internet at all.

Activist women are targets, pure and simple. There are men who get absolutely incensed that a woman might speak out about,... well, anything. This isn't a matter of legitimate disagreement, but about hysterical anger, sexual frustration, and primate breast-beating, all in complete anonymity. (With obsessive determination, they'll 'out' any woman who attempts to remain anonymous, herself - even posting her address and other personal details online - but they usually stay safely anonymous themselves.)

As a man, I find it incredibly disgusting and extremely embarrassing. But I see here that it's not new. How dare women think that they should be allowed to vote, or that they should be otherwise considered equal to men!
Take the Grimké sisters, for example. Born to a prominent South Carolina family, Angelina and Sarah Grimké became two of the 19th century’s most committed activists: for women’s rights, as in Sarah’s Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women (1838); for the abolition of slavery, as in Angelina’s Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836); and for other social causes and reforms. They were consistently condemned and vilified for those efforts, most especially for speaking in public and to “promiscuous” (i.e. mixed-gender) audiences. At one such event, at an 1838 anti-slavery convention in Philadelphia, Angelina spoke for more than an hour while stones and other objects were hurled against the windows and walls by a hostile mob—a mob that returned the next day and set fire to the convention hall.

Hostility toward abolitionists was, of course, interconnected with attacks on public women in that particular case, although the broader critiques of their public speaking efforts focused entirely on the Grimkés’ gender. But there were no such mitigating factors in the late 19th and early 20th century attacks on women’s suffrage activists. When thousands of suffrage activists marched to the White House to protest Woodrow Wilson’s March 1913 inauguration (scheduled for the next day), they were cursed, spit upon and even physically attacked by hostile crowds. Even when they weren’t being physically assaulted, suffrage activists were consistently belittled and demonized in media and cultural texts, such as the 1910 children’s book Ten Little Suffergets, which depicted the activists as silly little girls fortunately dissuaded from their cause by everything from cake and a “DEAD dolly” to drowning and a whipping.

Such longstanding historical attacks, physical as well as cultural, provide an important context for the late 20th century “backlash” against feminism identified by Susan Faludi and other scholars, as well as for our contemporary debates over birth control, wage equality and other issues. But along with the overt attacks, it’s important to consider another ongoing side of these American histories: the effects they had and continue to have on talented and innovative women in all walks of life. Illustrating those effects is the frustrating story of Sophia Hayden Bennett, the first woman to graduate from MIT with a degree in architecture and the architect chosen (only three years later, at the age of 23) to design the Women’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Despite this honor, Hayden Bennett’s design was criticized for “revealing the limitations” of its creator’s gender; the American Architect and Building News went further in its review, arguing that “as a woman’s work it ‘goes’ of course … it is simply weak and commonplace … The roof garden is a hen-coop for petticoated hens, old and young.”

Fed up with such responses, and likely extremely limited in her opportunities, Hayden Bennett never designed another building, and retired from architecture less than two years after the Exposition. When we see men follow Hillary Clinton around during her 2008 presidential campaign with signs ordering her to “iron their shirts,” witness the bullying and threats directed at female video game designers and scholars in the ongoing Gamergate controversy, it’s important to ask whether these longstanding histories have changed—and how many other talented American women might be forced out of their chosen professions and public activisms.

In the 19th Century, hostility towards women commonly had a Biblical basis. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton said in 1897, "In the early days of woman-suffrage agitation, I saw that the greatest obstacle we had to overcome was the bible. It was hurled at us on every side."

That's still the case to some extent (as with every issue, Christians are on both sides, since their god is completely inept at communication, apparently). However, there's also an embarrassing strain of misogyny in the atheist community these days.

Sure, atheism is just the disbelief in gods, nothing more. It's a very narrow label, and tells you nothing about what an atheist does believe. But it's still embarrassing. I came by my atheism from skepticism, but not all atheists are skeptics. Not all atheists are even decent human beings.

No comments: