Unicorn in Uniform

Compilation of role models, highlighting the unicorn-level excellence (that's like, the highest level) of women in uniform. Military culture, wars, and culture wars. Have fun!

Rebecca Watson, Rebecca Solnit, and the feminine American Dream

Via Slate

Rebecca Watson, also known as Skepchick, and Rebecca Solnit are two women who recently wrote articles describing dismissal in their professional lives. I found these two articles within days of each other, and they prompted a revelation for me. I think their work will strike a chord with military women who’ve shared a certain experience…

Rebecca Watson wrote “It Stands to Reason, Skeptics Can Be Sexist Too” for Slate about her run-in with the skeptic community after she began injecting a little feminist perspective into her blog posts and talks.

As I got to the elevator, a man who I had not yet spoken with directly broke away from the group and joined me. As the doors closed, he said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting. Would you like to come back to my hotel room for coffee?” I politely declined and got off the elevator when it hit my floor.

A few days later, I was making a video about the trip and I decided to use that as an example of how not to behave at conferences if you want to make women feel safe and comfortable…

What I said in my video, exactly, was, “Guys, don’t do that,” with a bit of a laugh and a shrug. What legions of angry atheists apparently heard was, “Guys, I won’t stop hating men until I get 2 million YouTube comments calling me a ‘cunt.’ ” The skeptics boldly rose to the imagined challenge.

Rebecca Solnit’s “The Problem With Men Explaining Things” on Mother Jones describes a man who took the time to explain her own book after hearing she’d written something on the subject.

So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingenue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book—with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.

I’m not here to chime in on sexism in the skeptic community, nor within academia; I’ve never liked Richard Dawkins, and I’m still too young to know if “men explaining things” will taper off once I develop my own expertise. It’s possible that a few stress lines might help advertise my experience and buttress my opinions. I was actually struck by the deaf ears present in both articles. Solnit addresses it outright, framed as an arrogant act of silencing, while Watson focuses on the personal attacks and threats leveled at her for mentioning that she felt discomfort at a convention for skeptics.

This happens in the military too. I’ve been ignored and spoken over so many times that I took it as a personal trait, something I was causing with my tone or mannerisms. While wearing a higher rank on my collar, with more education under my belt, I still expected men to direct their conversations around me unless I forced their attention. A former coworker texted an important personal question after I left the Marine Corps, a question that I was the best person to ask, and I was blown away. Why is that?  Reading these two articles helped me realize that I was so used to being disregarded (like the Rebeccas) by certain types of Marines that a normal level of attention, a response that incorporated something I’d wanted to communicate, felt like extraordinary success.

My first post for this blog that touched on gender issues was an optimistic response to a report on the second of two women dropping out of an experimental infantry training program. I received several comments on my post, and I joined similar discussions elsewhere online. In discussions like these, infinite men explain the limitations of female physical performance, how other men respond to women in uniform, and what would be best for women. Not once have I been asked how I fared physically in the Marine Corps, or how male Marines responded to me, despite identifying myself as a female Marine to provide context each time I joined the fray. Whether the comment is an angry agenda-push, complete disregard of actual events because predicting something dire is more fun, or weirdly apologetic; it’s still a decision handed down, not a two-way conversation.

Via Military.com

How does this relate to the American Dream? Simply because I had a conversation with my husband after reading these articles, and we discussed the differences in goals between men and women. We talked about the traditional American Dream, defined by James Truslow Adams in 1931 as, “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” For American immigrants, this was the dream of an open country, escape from an unwanted life, adventure, and limitless opportunity. For a man, that is. For a woman, this dream probably only spun images of a bigger house to clean, a strange language, isolation, and children who would come to identify with a culture other than her own.

The new American Dream for me is to make every choice correctly, no exceptions: to excel in marriage, parenting, education, career, friendships, and personal development. Otherwise, I’m deathly afraid that even one perceived degree of failure will cause me to be disregarded at every turn.

By Gary McCoy via NBCNews.com

My husband’s dream is a positive home environment and a good job. That’s it. He knows that his voice will carry whenever he has something to say. Meanwhile, I can’t give an opinion on a women’s issue in the branch of service to which I dedicated the best part of a decade without being explained to death.When I choose to maintain a personal communication channel like this blog, I take the risk that if I let even one ball drop, say if I gain weight or deal with strain in my marriage, there are thousands of strangers willing to use that imperfection to belittle and harass me. I’ve seen it too many times now, under the articles of too many female writers. Rebecca Watson is just one prominent example. I can’t read Rebecca Solnit’s article and believe this is limited to the internet, either.

If that’s really all there is to my over-complicated goals, to feel a little bit of confidence that I won’t be batted aside and disregarded because someone found a picture of me wearing ridiculous sweatpants, I can’t help but think that more women than just me feel the effects of this shaky foundation. I’d like to find a way to stress a little less, wherever the change has to occur.

What do you think, are women heard less than men?

10 comments on “Rebecca Watson, Rebecca Solnit, and the feminine American Dream

  1. yellowdresses
    October 28, 2012

    I love that you found a way to tie Rebecca Watson’s situation into your blog focus, Sarah. I’m a big fan of Watson’s (as a result of seeing her speak at GeekGirlCon this year) on the very experiences you quoted above.

    The thing is, I don’t think that this type of blatant sexism stops at the military or skeptic conferences or in video game forums: I think it’s everywhere, whether hush hush or outright and blatant. I think overall that we are heard less than men.

    I was just reading an article in Ms. (surprise, right?) that discussed how often women are quoted in the mainstream media regarding women-related topics (abortions, birth control, etc.). The average male percentage ranged from 50-80%, depending upon the topic. I was just blown away to see those numbers. We don’t even have a say in things that affect us! It’s hard to believe that the year is 2012, and not 1954 like it seems most days.

    • unicorninuniform
      October 28, 2012

      You know what, you’re exactly right — it doesn’t stop at the military or skeptic conferences, those are just two environments which skew so far male that we realize we’re uncomfortable, that it’s currently the status quo for women to take a backseat. If a group represents the population, 51 percent women, do we blame men when we feel ignored? Nope, we just make conversation with the other women present. When it’s a public speaker or a Marine leader, though, that’s not really an option. I love your comment, it is insane that women don’t cover at bare minimum 50 percent of quotes for every mainstream women’s issue.

      • yellowdresses
        October 28, 2012

        I agree with you completely. It’s definitely not an option in the Marines, and for that I feel for women in the situation. And agreed again: I know there are more women journalists and writers and experts on these subjects out there than are being interviewed/talked to. So why are our opinions being avoided on subjects relevant to us being ignored?

  2. Vic
    October 29, 2012

    Found this article via the link the author gave on the skepticink comment section.

    The Slate article of RW is one-sided, portions of it even so far skewed I’d even say it was written with malicious intent.

    RW and her supporters neither represent the entirety of feminist skeptics, nor the entirety of skeptic or atheist women. It would have been great if these feminists and egalitarian women, who oppose RW and her views, would have found the slightest represention in this article.

    Also not mentioned in this blog post or so far even ackknowledged by RW are the numerous efforts of skeptic communities, organisations and assorted people to reach out to women skeptics, encourage contribution by women and put equal numbers of speakers to the front.

    This blog paints the opposition to RW as anti-women or anti-women’s rights, an accusation easily proven to be baseless after an investigation of the blogs and publications of her critics, who embrace the values of equality and human rights and not only acknowledge the existence of sexism and discrimination in all layers of society, be it the civilian working environment, the military or personal life or the government, but campaign actively against them.

    Another criticism I have is the total lack of a reference to the threats and abuse many atheists or skeptics, male and female, receive proportional to their popularity and prominence apart from RW.
    Except from RW and her small number supporters, no one has claimed to be in a position of special victimisation or special discrimination based on gender, skin colour, heritage or similar.

    The last point is a especially serious, since RW and RW’s supporters have enganged in viscious personal attacks and cyber bullying, exactly the kind of threating behaviour they claim to abhor. These attacks have been meticulously documented by their victims, who bravely refuse to be labeled as such.

    RW, ‘skepchiks’ and assorted feminists are loud. But loudness is not accepted as a substitute for evidence, logic and honesty by the sceptic community, the lack of which is the base of the harshest critique RW receives.

    The whole affair has even coined a term: watsonism – a dogmatic ideology which persecutes dissenters: an ironic comparison to the fundamentalism and totalitarian methods which rationalists, skeptics, atheists and secular humanists stand firmly against.

    • unicorninuniform
      October 29, 2012

      In other words, you think you have very good reasons for ignoring Watson and thousands of her supporters who say they’re uncomfortable. She doesn’t represent every single skeptic woman, she’s dogmatic (an accusation which I imagine is a great way to reduce a person’s credibility among skeptics), she’s a bully (you will need to support that or I’ll assume it’s not true — links please). I get it, you know skeptics, they’re good people. You have reasons lined up in a row not to accept that when these women say they’re a little uncomfortable, they get threats and disgusting behavior in response. Tell me though, you don’t know the Marine Corps — how are you handling wnat I’m saying, that the exact same thing happens in my male-dominated culture, either quiet disregard or full-on sexist spew? Am I just woefully misinformed on my military career, like you think I am on skeptics, and you’ll explain why just as thoroughly? Forget Rebecca Watson, respond to my observation of identical treatment in the Marine Corps: do you have your reasons ready, why I should be ignored too?

  3. Respublicus
    November 6, 2012

    I’m also in the military (well, sort of,it’s the Air Force) and while there is still that sense of an old boy’s club, I’m also surrounded by women who are experts in their field. I hope they’re not given the sense that they are second-class, because some of them are among the smartest people I’ve ever met.

    However, what really interested me was this:

    “I still expected men to direct their conversations around me unless I forced their attention.”

    Did that start after you joined the military, or was it pre-existing? I’ve noticed this tendency in some of my female co-workers, even when they are clearly more qualified or knowledgeable in a topic to wait until asked to weigh in with their opinion, whereas the men will jump into the fray.

    I hope I’m expressing myself well, because I look at my own rambunctious little girl and I don’t see any signs of passivity or shyness in this regard. When does it begin? Is it primarily passed down, or does it start later, maybe in puberty, in response to sexual pressures? It’s important to me, because I want her to have the same big dreams that I grew up with, and the the same opportunity to succeed or fail on her own merits, and not on gender-based expectations. I hope she will have the opportunity to live in that world.

    • unicorninuniform
      November 6, 2012

      What an awesome comment. I was near-silent throughout adolescence, but my home life was abnormal so I wanted as little attention as possible. I knew outgoing girls in school — I’m not sure of the percentages who felt comfortable asserting themselves. I’d be interested looking for a study when I have more time.

    • Jen
      May 6, 2013

      The pressure starts as soon as socialization does…how long and how well it’s resisted depends on the nature of the girl/woman, the kind of home environment she has, etc.

  4. ColorBee
    November 8, 2012

    Sarah, great stuff! Women are definitely heard less than men. Reading this post brought up an old memory of my freshman year of college in the Northeast. Growing up with a feminist mother and a father who emphasized equality and respect to everyone, I was ill prepared for the real world, and for this following story:

    My ex boyfriends’ best friend was a very smart fellow, an uber liberal person who went to one of the best prep schools. Winter registration came and went – when he realized that the only section left of macro economics was taught by a woman and that all the male instructors had full classes he said, “No! I CAN’T learn economics from a woman!” I was at first like, haha, you don’t mean that. But he was serious! His theory was that female professors are unfairly tough to assert themselves in academia. He said that all women teachers overcompensate to prove themselves. My retort: “Because of people like you, we have to work twice as hard to get half as far”. And that’s when I decided that I couldn’t date someone with a friend like that.

    What really scared me the most about this, is that here was a perfectly educated man who did not see women as equals. And even though I had a solid argument against his, he dismissed me as not knowing “what I was talking about”. This is something that happens everywhere – it is sickening.

    • unicorninuniform
      November 9, 2012

      That’s really interesting. Even if his stereotype held true for that one class, if he’d had to work harder, he might have learned more. He made a prejudgment that flattered himself while simultaneously insisting on an easier path.

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