Doris Lessing lays the boulder down

Doris Lessing has left us at the age of 94. A H/T to Ms Magazine for the following, from the Golden Notebook:

We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly more stupid than ourselves to accept truths that the great men have always known. They have known for thousands of years that to lock a sick person into solitary confinement makes him worse. They have known for thousands of years that a poor man who is frightened of his landlord and of the police is a slave. They have known it. We know it. But do the great enlightened mass of the British people know it? No. It is our task, Ella, yours and mine, to tell them. Because the great men are too great to be bothered. They are already discovering how to colonise Venus and to irrigate the moon. That is what is important for our time. You and I are the boulder-pushers. All our lives, you and I, we’ll put all our energies, all our talents into pushing a great boulder up a mountain. The boulder is the truth that the great men know by instinct, and the mountain is the stupidity of mankind.

Here is the NPR obit.

Everyone who was ever told a fairytale knows what happens to women who do their own magic

Disclaimer: cultural critique of various tropes about men and women is not about you personally, even if you enjoy watching things with those tropes in them. Mmmkay? We will discover things in this post things that are obviously anti-woman that I, too, enjoy watching. Not about me or you. Cultural tropes.

Holy cow, I’m not sure how I missed out on reading Laurie Penny before, but she’s got an essay in The New Statesman that is making some heavy rounds, and deservedly so because there is a first-rate writer here. The essay is entitled I Was A Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Writing about Doctor Who this week got me thinking about sexism in storytelling, and how we rely on lazy character creation in life just as we do in fiction. The Doctor has become the ultimate soulful brooding hero in need of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to save him from the vortex of self-pity usually brought on by the death, disappearance or alternate-universe-abandonment of the last girl. We cannot have the Doctor brooding. A planet might explode somewhere, or he might decide to use his powers for evil, or his bow-tie might need adjusting. The companions of the past three years, since the most recent series reboot, have been the ultimate in lazy sexist tropification, any attempt at actually creating interesting female characters replaced by… That Girl.

Ok, big Dr. Who fan here, and an old lady, and you just have to admit: Dr. Who has always featured its manic pice dream girls long before Nate Rubin coined the very apt term. From Lalla Ward to Billy Piper, this is a series that has plenty of cute Girls with a capital G. While I was a big fan of the ensemble casts for some versions of the Doctor, I think I was a definite minority on that, and throughout the history of the series, we have one Girl after another, taken up and educated by the doctor to the vast exigencies of the universe. She bumbles her way into trouble by leaving the tardis’ safely paper-plate bedecked walls. The Doctor, even though he sheds his Galifrigean skin every so often, and can grow several inches to accommodate Peter Davidson’s and John Jon Pertwee’s lanky doctor and yet shrink to Colin Baker’s and Sylvester McCoy’s relatively more petite doctors, has somehow never managed, in 11 iterations, to grow a vagina or change his skin color. The best rejoinder to this I have ever seen happened on Star Trek, TNG with the Dax creatures who maintained their consciousness but moved freely from host to host, bending gender back and forth, and thinking little of it. They still loved whom they loved, did whatever job they did, regardless of the equipment of their host.

I like the idea of Lenny Henry or his ex, Dawn French, playing the doctor.

Thus the first great thing about Penny’s discussion: her use of the word “lazy.” Writers use these tropes, and so do we consumers of their tales, because they are easy to construct and understand. They allow us to keep the action moving and the Daleks because we’re not held up thinking about why things and characters in the story are different than what we expect, and we can all just get to the part where the world is in danger and there are explosions and we can stop worrying about how to pay the mortgage or where the next tuition payment comes from.

The second Boom! quote from Penny’s essay:

Stories matter. Stories are how we make sense of the world, which doesn’t mean that those stories can’t be stupid and simplistic and full of lies. Stories can exaggerate and offend and they always, always matter.

So yesterday a commenter asked me why it mattered whether a particular celebrity was selling a narrative, with narrative which is a old proffie way of saying “story.” Well, this is why they matter. It’s why history matters, and communication matters, and literature matters; story is at the center of the way we produce culture and society in our communicating ideas about reality. And, as Penny notes:

Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing…

Part of the reason I’m writing this is that the MPDG trope isn’t properly explored, in any of the genres I read and watch and enjoy. She’s never a point-of-view character, and she isn’t understood from the inside. She’s one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority. Instead of a personality, she has eccentricities, a vaguely-offbeat favourite band, a funky fringe.

and all sorts of feelings here:

But I refuse to burn my energy adding extra magic and sparkle to other people’s lives to get them to love me. I’m busy casting spells for myself. Everyone who was ever told a fairytale knows what happens to women who do their own magic.

Go read, go read, go read.

Here’s my twist: have we thought about the uniquely urban nature of the average Manic Pixie Dream Girl in movies? Some of that may just be that most movies and tv have no interest in settings that aren’t urban any more–product placement is better in urban contexts on film. But to whet your thinking on this, here is another essay on the Brooklyn Girl….

Farewell Marianne Ferber

I was very sad to read, via Crooked Timber, that Marianne Ferber has passed. Here is a link to an excellent obituary:

Worthwhile Canadian Initiative: Marianne Ferber: A little giant:

She was, at heart, a radical, fiercely committed to equality and social justice. She fought to improve women’s status in the economics profession the hard way: by taking concrete action. Many women and men benefitted from her willingness to write supportive letters of reference, her sound practical advice, and her inspiring example of what can be achieved with intelligence, conscientiousness, and a complete and utter lack of strategic career planning. 


One of my favorite contributions of hers is a nice edited volume from 1993: Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics, which demonstrated the richness that could enter the paradigm if you take gender seriously as factor in the empirical work that economists do.

Another edited volume I like is Academic Couples, which she edited with Jane Loeb.

Read something intelligent about Hilary Mantel’s comments about Kate Middleton instead of all the crap

As if you needed more proof that a) there is a horrible backlash against women going on and b) most of the media sucks in a major way, you have the purported Hilary Mantel-Kate Middleton feud. I have to admit that I had to look up who Kate Middleton was. Here’s a good piece from Catherine Scott in the Telegraph:

Hilary Mantel writes about historic royalty in its full, ugly glory. The public lap up her words and committees award her prizes for doing so – the Man Booker, twice, and most recently the Costa Prize. Yet when she dares to comment on a member of the current royal family all hell breaks loose. The Daily Mail has condemned Mantel’s “venomous attack” on the Duchess of Cambridge in her lecture for the London Review of Books, reading out of context such sentences as “her eyes are dead and she wears [a] strained smile” – even though this is actually a criticism of the painter who produced the Duchess’s official portrait – as evidence of a catfight between an embittered novelist and the perfect princess.

Yessiree, that’s how it always goes with old, ugly, dried up women who seethe–seethe!–with jealousy towards younger women. If an older women criticizes a younger woman’s work, it’s proof that she hates-HATES-HATES with the white-hot fury of the evil witch-queen the wee little Snow White in question, who is a sweet blossom of loveliness and, thus, whose work is beyond criticism. Besides, we all know women don’t actually know anything and can’t be authorities on knowledge or ideas or anything, so any disagreement between them must be over their relative sexual desirability to men! IT HAS TO BE!

Gah! It’s pretty clear doing a quick web search around about the controversy that most news outlets DIDN’T EVEN READ what Mantel said before recycling quotes taken out of context from each other.

Because, of course, why would you want to READ something a woman said?


HBR on how deal with stupidity directed at women who lead

I’ve got to throw this up and then run, as I am getting on a plane (and, one reason I’ve been quiet lately is the paper that I am going to give when I get off said plane). But Harvard Business Review has a short feature up on How Female Leaders Should Handle Double Standards. It’s a disappointing article in a couple ways, though it is probably correct: you must act like you are rubber and they are glue. If anything should disappoint you wildly about the state of journalism, it’s this last comment from one of Hilary Clinton staffers:

For instance, in a recent interview with members of Hillary Clinton’s press corps, a veteran reporter said: “The story is never what she says, as much as we want it to be. The story is always how she looked when she said it.”

Clinton says she doesn’t fight it anymore; she focuses on getting the job done.

Todd Pettigrew mansplains how women in the academy should choose their choice

Attention conservation notice: Don’t lecture women on their choices based on cheap shots and self-aggrandizing stories about your own experiences.

Two of my brilliant students, Eli Glazer and Alejandro Sanchez-Lopez, tweeted this post to my attention. It’s by Todd Pettigrew, in Macleans Higher Ed. Why do people write these things? Since Eli and Alejandro are two of my favorites, I’ll dissect it, even though it’s so flimsy it does not deserve the attention. There, Dr. Pettigrew, are some clicks for you. Enjoy.

First of all, the issue: women on the tenure track balancing career and family.

I am often hard on my colleagues who are good demanding things for themselves because of caregiving concerns, but who never ever think that their demands should be made generally of the institution, for all people working there, from the janitors to the provost. If I hear one more comment on “Can female professors/other privileged occupations have it all?” I am going to barf/start smacking people upside the head. For one thing, it suggests that work and children are “all” and that women who don’t have both are lacking in one or the other, and why don’t we all just back up and let women and their partners and their families decide what “all” is for them and try to help them attain their goals? That strikes me as cool.

And second, nobody is asking the women cleaning toilets if they can have it all. I’m happy to worry about the problems of women on the tenure track, but only so far that I worry about the problem of uncompensated caregiving work and its distribution between genders in general. People caring for terminally ill spouses and aging parents have caregiving work, too, and it takes time and energy and money, too, and they tend to get fewer workplace accommodations than parents of either gender do.

So I’m not automatically inclined to take up the cause of extending caregiving time and childcare benefits to parents on the tenure track, but I am inclined to do so for people in general. Kids are important to us all, just like caring for the sick or aged matters to us all. Period. People who need care (i.e., all of us, at some point) are part of society. They are ours–not just some women’s problem to deal with. Ours.

But my students, who have to deal with me picking on their lapses in reasoning all semester, are waiting to see a response to Pettigrew, and I am happy to oblige. Please never write stuff like this piece. If you do get a public forum for your ideas, please show humility, reason, and care. That’s your job as somebody who is trying to influence policy.

The first set of problems: 1) Pettigrew appears to have no idea what it’s like being a woman in male-dominated field in the academy; 2) he appears no have idea what things are like in science departments; 3) he probably has no clue what things are like at major research universities because he never appears to have been at one, except as a grad student. His willingness to speak to ‘academic women’ as a ‘progressive man’ begins from a position of basic ignorance about many things salient to the discussion. That is your first sign as a writer and a reasoner: if you must write about a topic that is way outside of your experience, go with humility first. Tread carefully. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about intellectual humility and the spirit of exploration. And not sounding like a tool.

Let’s break down the argument, point by point.

Lousy/Borderline unethical argumentation alert #1: Distorting the original argument for your own ends.

A recent article in University Affairs, for instance, reports on a study by Shelley Adamo who argues that women are underrepresented as biologists because they tend to be seeking jobs when they “are in their late 20s and early 30s and more likely to have a partner and young children. ‘That sort of handicaps them,’” according to Dr. Adamo.

First, as a married man I resent the claim that a husband or other life partner inevitably “handicaps” the career of a female academic. If your special someone doesn’t think your career is important, then find someone who does. And what about the life partners who support their academic spouses by paying the bills while their partner is burning the midnight oil?

How did “…that sort of handicaps them” turn into a claim that it “inevitably handicaps” anything?

That distorted framing–which is a form of audience manipulation–starts from the headline onward. “Academic women should stop blaming their children” is designed, pure and simple, as click-bait. The women in the original study are talking about the issues that arise for them in their roles working between career and children. If they blame anything, it’s the academy’s inflexibility, childcare provision scarcity, and a broad misunderstanding/denigration of the time and energy that caregiving takes. Nobody’s blaming the innocent widdle kiddies, although it helps Dr. Pettigrew construct a moral highground–for the children I speak!–atop a straw man–or straw child in this case.

Lousy argumentation alert #2–Personalizing something not about you. “I resent the idea…”

We should all be worried that he resents the idea…. Of course, he is distorting the ideas specifically so that he can resent something, but we should all be concerned about his feelings about something that was never said or even seriously implied rather than waste our time worrying about the issues/arguments/ideas concerning caregiving work.

Lousy argumentation alert #3–The Facile Contradiction

Next up: the assertion about the supportive partners. Sure, we all know supportive partners exist; I’m even fortunate enough to have one. Isn’t that clever of me?

But that is cheap argumentation 101: find a contradiction to a claim and then act like that contradiction proves something. But without evidence, we can’t tell if the contradiction reflects the prevailing trend (i.e. most people have supportive spouses) or whether this is a man-bites-dog contradiction (it happens, but it is not particularly illustrative of social life).

The contradiction may prove nothing for all we really know, but it does superficially reassure us that if a guy takes out the trash or holds down a job, women don’t need childcare or extra help attaining career success. See what I did there? Woo! I, too, can distort arguments and imply they are wrong, deeply wrong by contradicting something that was never claimed in the first place.

Of course partners can play a supportive role; relationships are mix of give and take. But even supportive spouses can add complications to the highly specialized, and often narrow, chances for academic careers and fieldwork. When you have more people to accommodate in your career move, fieldwork, and schedule, the accommodations become more constraining. It’s hard to drop your family and go do fieldwork in Indonesia for 6 months; it’s probably even harder to take them with you. Certainly people do it, and certainly it affects parents and scholars of both genders. That’s why we should grapple with the concerns that caregivers have in general, not just lecture women (or anybody) about choices.

Oh, and just get yourself a partner that supports what you do, why doncha? It’s all so easy. Make your whole life fit the academic world, lest ye or anybody start questioning academia or the way academic institutions treat people. If some partner of yours doesn’t immediately fall in line with your career or has needs of their own, ditch ’em. Trade up.

Lousy argumentation alert #4: Remove the nuance from a set of ideas, then distort those ideas, for your own rhetorical convenience. This one is really a work of art.

As for children, there are, to some extent, biological realities that would put extra strain on any woman trying to get to the forefront of her field. Still, feminists have been hammering the point home for over a generation now: women control their own bodies and should be able to choose whether or not to have children. But if that’s the case, then women can’t blame children for lack of academic success. If it’s a choice, then women have the choice not to have children if they don’t like the implications for their careers.

Biological realities that would put extra strain? To some extent? I don’t know what he meant to convey by that, so let’s skip it. Then he goes on to hoisting feminists on their own petard of choice! Devastating!

Only, again–he’s taken a grossly unfair read of what many feminists have argued. Feminists in reality are a diverse bunch and hold a wide range of positions on the body and birth control, but since that doesn’t serve his argument, he just flattens out what those “feminists” say for his rhetorical convenience.

And talk abut distorting an argument for self-serving reasons. I’m pretty sure what those hammering (oh, rhymes with yammering) feminists did not mean that women need to be able to control their reproduction so that it suits institutions. Yes, by gum, those institutions are so darned swell, we should expect women to make their choices to fit those institutions–not expect those institutions to evolve in pro-social, pro-family ways that would help parents of both genders manage their work and family roles. THAT’S JUST CRAZY. Choose, women, choose. CHOOSE YOUR CHOICE, women; you may have only one role! Men, carry on as you do, not having to make these choices because there are no career implications for you. (Only there probably are if you aren’t a crap caregiver, no matter what your gender.) Aren’t men swell for not whining or blaming their children in this situation?

This, from “a progressive man”? Does his dictionary have a different meaning for the word “progressive” than mine? Is there an obscure definition where progressive means assuming that maintaining existing institutional practices and cultures matter more than social inclusion?

Lousy Argumentation alert #5: The just-so story about oneself used as evidence, with straight-up misogyny mixed in

But what gets me is the way Fullick slips children into the mix of things that just happen to unsuspecting candidates: “Personal events can intervene, such as the birth of a child.” By the time a woman reaches graduate school, I expect that she understands the various mechanisms around pregnancy. Forgive me, then, but the birth of a child does not intervene. If you choose to have a baby while a graduate student, that’s your choice.

First, the misogyny. Note how he implies single responsibility for pregnancy to women: “by the time a woman reaches graduate school, I expect that she understands the various mechanisms…” Women, this is all on you. Having a child is not a family thing, a decision made in family and social contexts. It’s you and you alone. Those of us who advocate for women’s rights to choose also understand that partners and families have a stake in those choices, btw. What entitlements that stake grants is contested, fine, but women are not baby factories with on and off switches just because they have choices.

He does have a point about the passive language in the original text, but he once again overblows the passivity and amplifies for his own self-interested ends to score some cheap points rather than actually making an argument.

Yes, graduate students of both genders do know where babies come from, but what does that prove, again? Just because you know where babies come from, and you can use birth control to set the timing does not mean you are free to dictate the exact, proper, conditions for when childbearing come together in your life. Waiting for a “good time to have children” strikes me as a luxury–some people have it, other people do not. I suspect parents try to do the best they can. I worked a demanding job before graduate school that precluded kids: if I had said “no kids until tenure” we would have started trying when I was 39. Risks for maternal and child health go up by a lot by that age; check the numbers. So then….that’s my choice had I wanted children in Pettigrew’s framing? All so no university ever has to be bothered with coming up with ideas and practices that help out workers who have children?

So that we can understand how the pros do the baby factory on/baby factory off, Dr. Pettigrew does give us an instructional, just-so story about his own prudence:

When I was a graduate student, my partner and I discussed it seriously and decided against it. No child intervened. And we didn’t get lucky. We decided.

Never mistake your preferences or your experiences for evidence in argumentation. Dr. Pettigrew does both here.

How is HIS personal experience illustrative of anything other than a willingness to argue from an N of 1? Good job making the choice that worked for you. We’re all so glad for you. I guess this means you’re absolved from accommodating people who make different choices than you? How does that work in a cosmopolitan community amongst ‘progressives’?

Finally, it’s clear from Dr. Pettigrew’s tone and his cv that he has no idea what the work expectations are for women in science or at major research universities. Resources for parents and kids are likely to vary substantially by university context, along with work expectations.

Pettigrew is an associate professor at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia. He has no idea what a young parent starting out in biology or any other science at a place like USC or Columbia is up against. I’m sure he had high teaching expectations placed on him–but I have no way of judging whether that’s easier or harder than what we had to go through to get tenure at USC.

And neither does he. He’s just willing to presume he does my know my life, and the lives of women in the academy more generally. That’s the art of the mansplain.

#ACSP2012 Reflections 4: 25 years of feminism and the Faculty Women’s Interest Group

I have had the good fortune of being the president of the Faculty Women’s Interest Group since 2010. We planned a celebration this year to honor the women who held firm on forming the organization 25 years ago; there were so few at the first meeting that I extended the group to the first five years. The result was a list of around 30 women who founded a feminist organization within ACSP to address feminist issues within the planning academy.

It was a very touching celebration, with founders sharing their memories and newcomers sharing their gratitude. We also took time to remember some of the founders who are no longer with us, like Marsha Ritzdorf, and those who are struggling with illness, like Marsha Marker Feld.

The testimony to look how far we’ve come came at the lunch: this year we had close to 200 women who attended. We have certainly joined the academy in large numbers. But disparities between men and women in the academy persist, and the fight continues. The advantages and gains of white women have exceeded those of women of color.

Thus our 25 year celebration has to denote a turning point as well as a celebration: our past teaches us how difficult it is to succeed when nobody believes in you, and how important it is to join together as a means to create opportunities. Our gains in numbers have to be accompanied by the recognition that those gains include obligations to use our power to support those coming after us, and to work with people of color to make their lives and paths easier within the academy. Our students and colleagues need our support and our leadership.

We have come a long way in 25 years; I am a grateful beneficiary of it, and have blessed to have been a small part of it.

#ACSP2012 Reflections 2: Mentoring across difference POCIG/FWIG panel, thinking about LGBTQ concerns

Georgia Tech’s Catherine Ross and Tufts’ Julian Agyeman were kind enough to join me for a POCIG/FWIG joint session on “Mentoring Across Difference.” We had a terrific discussion, and there were three questions that really gave me some food for thought.

1: How do we help ACSP promote accountability within departments for making sure that university departments understand the differences that faculty and color face during promotion and tenure?

Julian had a terrific answer to this question, and it concerns the idea that we should have cultural literacy required in our core master’s classes. Now, this strikes me as a great idea, with some potential dangers. The great idea part: if we get master’s students to truly begin to see how entitlement and privilege work differently for different groups, they will understand these differences going forward into PhD programs, and onto faculty.Read More »

In other words, studies show that people treat women like crap, even though we’re all supposedly equal now

American Political Science Review

Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation

a1 Brigham Young University
a2 Princeton University
a3 Portland State University


Can men and women have equal levels of voice and authority in deliberation or does deliberation exacerbate gender inequality? Does increasing women’s descriptive representation in deliberation increase their voice and authority? We answer these questions and move beyond the debate by hypothesizing that the group’s gender composition interacts with its decision rule to exacerbate or erase the inequalities. We test this hypothesis and various alternatives, using experimental data with many groups and links between individuals’ attitudes and speech. We find a substantial gender gap in voice and authority, but as hypothesized, it disappears under unanimous rule and few women, or under majority rule and many women. Deliberative design can avoid inequality by fitting institutional procedure to the social context of the situation.

And here’s a study that Larry Summers can draw on the next time he’s inspired to talk about how women are bad at science.

Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students [pdf]

Corinne A. Moss-Racusina, John F. Dovidiob, Victoria L. Brescollc, Mark J. Grahama, and Jo Handelsmana

Despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science. Abundant research has demonstrated gender bias in many demographic groups, but has yet to experimentally investigate whether science faculty exhibit a bias against female students that could contribute to the gender disparity in academic science. In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student. Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent. We also assessed faculty participants’ preexist- ing subtle bias against women using a standard instrument and found that preexisting subtle bias against women played a moderating role, such that subtle bias against women was associated with less support for the female student, but was unrelated to reactions to the male student. These results suggest that interventions addressing faculty gender bias might advance the goal of increasing the participation of women in science.