Tag Archives: sexism

The Language of Gender Violence

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Laurie says:

The language that used to define and describe violence against women and children infuriates me.

I’ve been planning to post about it. I just had my attention brought Jackson Katz’s talk at Middlebury College in Vermont and it’s brilliant. He spoke on how common language is perpetuating gender violence today.

Quotes are from an excellent article in Middlebury Magazine by Robert Keren. He’s an award wining journalist.

Problems of gender violence, which include sexual violence, domestic violence, sexual abuse of children, and sexual harassment, are viewed by society as “women’s issues that some good men help out with,” rather than seen as men’s issues.

Men and masculinity “have been rendered invisible in much of the discourse” around gender violence, Katz said. This is not surprising since “dominant groups often go unchallenged in society, and their power and privilege goes unexamined.”

“[Gender violence issues] affect women at every level, but I am here to say that the very fact of just calling these issues ‘women’s issues’ is in itself part of the problem.”…

The first problem with using the term ‘women’s issues’ when talking about gender violence is it gives men an excuse to not pay attention. A lot of men hear ‘women’s issues’ and they tend to tune it out and think, ‘Hey, I’m a guy,’ and they literally don’t get past the first sentence.”

Another way that people discuss gender violence is through the use of the passive voice.

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.

“So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys and onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction; there’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them…Men aren’t even a part of it!”

Next, Katz used a whiteboard on the platform at Mead Chapel (giving credit to author Julia Penelope for the exercise that followed) and wrote:

John beat Mary
Mary was beaten by John
Mary was beaten
Mary was battered
Mary is a battered woman.

The first sentence, Katz explained, “is a good English sentence: a subject, a verb, and an object.” The second sentence is the first sentence written in the passive voice, and according to Katz “a whole lot has happened. The focus has shifted from John to Mary. John is now at the end of the sentence, which means that John is very close to dropping off the map of our psychic plane. So it’s not just bad writing to use the passive voice, it’s also political. And the political effect has been to shift the focus from John to Mary.”

In the third sentence John is gone. In the fourth, the term “battered” is substituted for “beaten,” and in the final sentence of the sequence “you can see that Mary has a new identity. She is now a battered woman and John is no longer part of the conversation.” How language holds victims accountable, rather than their perpetrators, is demonstrated by the way the word “accuser” has supplanted the term “alleged victim.”

“This,” Katz stated, “is a very big shift in the conversation about sexual violence. People who come forward to allege that they have been sexually assaulted are now referred to routinely as ‘accusers.’ There’s a lot going on here with the use of this word. The public is generally positioned to identify sympathetically with the victims of sexual assault or other forms of abuse. So when you hear about a sexual assault you think, ‘That’s horrible. That’s too bad. Or that could have been me or someone I care about.’”

But using the term ‘accuser’ reverses the process, because it turns the victim into an accuser. “So we as a public are now positioned to identify sympathetically with him as the victim of her accusation, rather than with her as the victim of his alleged perpetration. This is subtle but deep, isn’t it? It’s another instance where victims are being told to sit down, shut up, and don’t come forward because if you come forward you are going to be an accuser, and then people are going to be questioning your motives…it’s just another way that we in society keep people from coming forward.”…

And he closed with a quote from Frederick Douglass, the 19th century orator and activist, who said, “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”

This information has been around for at least 30 years, including Julia Penelope’s article Prescribed Passivity: The Language of Sexism.

There’s so much more to say about this, but this article is so clear and cogent it deserves to stand by itself.

Thanks to Amy Thomson and MJ Hardman

Four African American Women: Nineteenth Century Inventors

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In 1888, in Chicago, Sarah Goode applied for and was granted a patent. Goode had just conceptualized what she called the “cabinet-bed

Laurie Says:

These four Black women inventors reimagined the technology of the home: By designating the realm of technology as ‘male,’ we overlook key inventions that took place in the domestic sphere.

Leila McNeill’s fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine discusses  African American women inventors in the domestic sphere in the latter part of the 19th century. Their accomplishments against overwhelming odds are rarely noted in part because inventions that improve domestic life are rarely recognized as important. And obviously, the endemic racism of the 19th century would never recognize that these women could have valuable ideas.

McNeill makes a point of saying that these are the only four African-American women inventors of this time period that we can identify, though there were certainly more. Following Goode, Mariam Benjamin invented the “gong-signal chair,” whose occupants could signal when service was needed. Benjamin thought about it for invalids, but even more for legislators in session. Sarah Boone is responsible for the iconic curve in the ironing board, making it more useful for sleeves and curved waists. And Ellen Elgin invented a widely successful clothes wringer, but made no money off it because she sold the patent rights.

Aside from her information about these individual women, McNeill examines the overall situation they faced:

Disenfranchised groups often participated in science and technology outside of institutions. For women, that place was the home. Yet although we utilize its many tools and amenities to make our lives easier and more comfortable, the home is not typically regarded as a hotbed of technological advancement. It lies outside our current understanding of technological change—and so, in turn, do women, like Goode, Benjamin, Boone, and Elgin, who sparked that change.

When I asked historian of technology Ruth Schwartz Cowan why domestic technology is not typically recognized as technology proper, she gave two main reasons. First, “[t]he definition of what technology is has shrunk so much in the last 20 years,” she says. Many of us conceptualize technology through a modern—and limited—framework of automation, computerization, and digitization. So when we look to the past, we highlight the inventions that appear to have led to where we are today—which forces us to overlook much of the domestic technology that has made our everyday living more efficient.

The second reason, Cowan says, is that “we usually associate technology with males, which is just false.” For over a century, the domestic sphere has been coded as female, the domain of women, while science, engineering, and the workplace at large has been seen as the realm of men. These associations persist even today, undermining the inventive work that women have done in the domestic sphere. Goode, Benjamin, Boone and Elgin were not associated with any university or institution. Yet they invented new technology based on what they knew through their lived experiences, making domestic labor easier and more efficient.

One can only guess how many other African American women inventors are lost to history because of restricted education possibilities and multiple forms of discrimination, we may never know who they are. This does not mean, however, that women of color were not there—learning, inventing, shaping the places in which we have lived. Discrimination kept the world from recognizing them during their lifetimes, and the narrow framework by which we define technology keeps them hidden from us now. 

There’s lots of fascinating information about these 4 women and their inventions in the article. Read the whole article!