Tales from the Backlash: Blogging Women's History Month edition

This just in last night from the Historiann mailbag, from Jen Kirkman, the comedian who narrated “Drunk History, vol. 3,” the women’s history edition featuring the story of Oney Judge and her relationship with her owners, George and Martha Washington.  Jen left a comment on that post from December, 2008:

Hey ladies,
This is Jen – the narrator from Drunk History. I thought you would find it interesting that I have received death threats, mean emails and countless comments directed at me being a woman, stupid, ugly, “this is what happens when bitches drink” etc. etc. for this episode.

My other male friends who narrated the other ones have received almost NO negative feedback – except for the occassional person who asks them, “Were you REALLY drunk?”

My comments are strictly to do with gender and young boys seem angry that when I got drunk – I got mad about slavery. I’ve had my patriotism questioned, and lots of boys write to me about how my facts are wrong – when many of the facts are spot on and I had a document in front of me that I was referring to.

I find it very interesting that the subtle sexism’s in our culture run RAMPANT on the internet and are very disappointing. I don’t think feminism is being addressed AT ALL to these younger boys in whatever school they go to.

I think the comments that Jen gets on her video are proof that the sexism in our culture is anything but subtle!  And, I don’t think the feminist movement is portrayed at all in heroic terms like the Abolition or Civil Rights movements–if it’s addressed at all in K-12 history classes, and my guess is that it’s usually not a part of the curriculum.  As to Jen’s experirence with on-line commenters and e-mails from complete strangers:  what I’ve learned in my 14 months as founder and sole proprietor of this blog is that people who present on-line as male feel utterly entitled to say whatever they damn well please to people presenting on-line as female.  Kind of like real life, only with less accountability!  Like I wrote last summer, ” men (in general) are much more presumptuous about monopolizing or claiming women’s bodies, time, and space (in general) than vice-versa, because that presumption is a large part of the definition of male privilege.  Although it’s no longer technically legal in most cases, male privilege thrives and it it enforced by many men, and women too (sadly).  And this presumption works in similar ways in the blogosphere, as it works in real life.”  

I’ve also been thinking about this all week long, ever since I saw this Call for Papers over at Tenured Radical on Monday morning:

Call for Papers: Feminism, Blogging and the Historical Profession. The Journal of Women’s History invites submissions for a round table on the emergence of blogging as a location for critical thought among women in the historical profession; historians of women, gender and sexuality; and feminist scholars who may, or may not be, historians. Participants may wish to address one or more of the following questions in an abstract of no more than 250 words: What role does self-publishing on the internet play in a profession where merit is defined by scholarly review and a rigorous editorial process? What are the intellectual benefits, and/or costs, of blogging? What are the ethics and consequences of blogging under a pseudonym? What kinds of electronic acknowledgement already correlate with established scholarly practices; which can be discarded; and which need to be attended to, perhaps more rigorously than in printed publications? If many scholarly publications and organizations have already adopted blogs as a way of spreading news and inviting conversation, is blogging itself developing rules and practices that will inevitably produce intellectual and scholarly hierarchies similar to those that blogging seeks to dismantle? Does feminist blogging offer particular opportunities for enhanced conversation about race, sexuality, class and national paradigms, or does it tend to reproduce existing scholarly paradigms and silences within feminist scholarship? Finally, are new forms of colleagueship and scholarship emerging in the blogosphere?

The round table will consist of a short introduction, several essays of 2 – 3,000 words, and a concluding comment/response. Abstracts should arrive no later than July 15, 2009, and can be submitted electronically to Claire Potter at tenuredDOTradicalATgmail.com. Final submissions are due October 1. Pseudonymous bloggers may publish under their pseudonyms, but must be willing to reveal their identities to the editor of the round table and the commenter. Bloggers based outside the United States are particularly encouraged to contribute.

Tell me, all of you women scholars and scholars of women out there:  did you think that doing women’s history in the year 2009 would be viewed as so incredibly radical?  When you were in graduate school, did you think you’d be living in a world where Jen Kirkman’s comedy would elicit such anger and disgust from people presenting as boys or men on-line?

0 thoughts on “Tales from the Backlash: Blogging Women's History Month edition

  1. Sometimes I think that human beings are simply creatures driven by a range of evolutionary strategies, which lead some to be more empathetic and clear thinking and others to be self-centred and aggressive (and everything in between). However then I am cheered up by the thought of toilet training. Up until not that long ago people pooped wherever. Now we use toilets. And it’s only because people are taught to do so. That gives me hope of the educability of human beings. But your post reminds me of a story about masculinists enrolled in “Men’s Studies.”


  2. Pingback: *Biology is Destiny « A Novelist’s Mind: Lilian Nattel Online

  3. To answer your question: nope! But, it doesn’t surprise me either. My work centers on women in a predominantly female profession, librarianship, and I know that there are some people who don’t take it as seriously as they might if I was focusing on men. The work these women did (and still do) is often made invisible by the very fact that it is still seen as a woman’s profession, especially library work with children. I try to ignore the idiots, but it’s frustrating.


  4. No, I’m not amazed at all. At least, I’m not amazed by the comments on Jen’s video. Not because of Jen or the video, mind you, but because this is the discourse that takes place whenever women post themselves in public: 1) evaluation of physical attractiveness (if I may be crude, f*ckability); 2) accusations that the woman in question is “dumb”, written by morons who can’t spell or punctuate; and 3) out-of-nowhere insults, using the foulest language possible. Sometime for fun, also 4) threats of physical violence.

    And god help her if she complains. Then it’s her fault for being there in the first place, and if she doesn’t like it, she should just leave.

    What I see in this nearly uniform commentary is an attempt to make the new public sphere a woman-free zone. I like to think that this represents a small fragment of the actual population. But they’re apparently a large sector of the online population, and if you want to go there, you’re dealing with a much higher misogyny content. The question becomes the same as when dealing with street harassers: do you tell them off, refuse to engage, or simply stop being there? And as with street harassers, none of these seems like particularly good options.

    For the record, I thought Jen’s video was hilarious.


  5. I’m sorry to say that I think Notorious’s description is spot-on, especially this part:

    What I see in this nearly uniform commentary is an attempt to make the new public sphere a woman-free zone. I like to think that this represents a small fragment of the actual population. But they’re apparently a large sector of the online population, and if you want to go there, you’re dealing with a much higher misogyny content.


  6. This post reminds me of that AHA report from 2005 on the status of women, which discussed how things are NOT getting better. It says: “Women who have received the Ph.D. since 1986 proved the most voluble and discouraged of all the survey recipients. The optimism and belief in progress characteristic of some of their predecessors is largely absent in this group, few of whom see improvements on the gender front. Many feel that gender knots have only become tighter” (6).

    That has always struck me as especially sad. Yes–we’ve all seen improvement in terms of the number of women hired, etc.–but the less overt and more insidious forms of discrimination are thriving. I am 27, and like many of the younger generation I hadn’t expected to encounter so many problems. When I was young and naive (say, 20 or 21) I knew that there were still problems, but I hadn’t been exposed to a deeply sexist environment yet. Entering grad school was eye-opening for me. I had a very famous male professor touch me inappropriately as we stood outside his office, and I thought to myself, “surely this must be an aberration.” That is really the point when I started to pay more attention to gender bias and discrimination.

    So, in short, I think younger faculty and grad students are more despondent because our expectations were so much higher. It is a long fall when one realizes that things really haven’t changed all that much.

    P.S. I love this video too, and I’ve seen some of Jen’s standup on YouTube. She’s great!


  7. THE, when we opened the Berks last summer with an appraisal of the state of the women in the historical profession, including some new(er) and not encouraging information than the 2005 report included, we had some complaints from junior scholars and grad students who were disgruntled that we harshed their buzzes. As if pointing out the lack of progress is the fault of those of us with the data, rather than the profession as a whole! Wev.

    Although I can’t say that I’m happy that your experiences have already turned your head at the tender age of 27, I think it’s better to have your eyes and ears open rather than to proceed blindly and live on “hope.” In my case, I was cosseted through my schooling, and didn’t see the backlash until I entered paid employment myself (at age 27, as it happens.)


  8. I’m close in age with The History Enthusiast and I had a similar experience of “eye-opening” when I started graduate school, although I’ve been lucky enough to avoid getting any inappropriate attention from male faculty or graduate students. Prior to graduate school, I was aware of some of the big problems: inequal pay for equal work, sexual harrassment, etc. But I certainly never expected these issues to be so prevalent in the academy and I never realized just how ingrained discrimination against men can be, even from the most well-meaning and progressive of men. (Case in point: it’s shocking just how quickly some of the men I know–men even more “progressive/radical” than I–link a dismal rate of women receiving tenure in my department to their scholarship or lack of it without any consideration of how it is that a much higher percentage of men received tenure during the same period. To them, it boils down to an issue of the work not being good enough or not produced on time but there’s no discussion of the fact that there is a system in place that allows men to produce good work in a much quicker fashion than women in a lot of cases.)

    So yeah, graduate school itself made me much more aware of discrimination than any of my other experiences; the same could be said for race. Not so much an issue of discrimination, per se, but it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I was in a situation in which minorities were scarce.


  9. I hate to put this so bluntly, but nothing really has changed at all. Men are just as attacking and belittling of women as ever, national radio shows degrade women with impunity, and the entire feminist movement is almost NEVER taught in gradeschool or even high school.

    One little racist cartoon appears in the New York Post and all hell breaks loose, because black men won’t tolerate this. Jon Favreau posts a rape cartoon of Hillary Clinton (a photo) and Obama still has him on staff!!

    The Civil Rights movement is taught because it is about the rights of men. Rmemeber the radical feminist basics here: if men are involved, it’s a huge human rights issue (take your pick — Apartheid South Africa, Palestinian statehood, Tamil nationalism…), but if only women are involved, boys, men and all penis centered beings are on the attack. A purely women’s freedom movement will be denegraded because men have a huge stake in the sexual access system they demand of women. Men want women for sex and for servitude, nothing else, slave labor too. That’s it folks, that’s who men are.

    If women really woke up, and really completely and utterly rebelled, the world would be so different, we wouldn’t recognize it.

    I think younger women are completely naive as to what we are up against here, both in the academy and in the business world. Men will only cease and desist when they know they will be sued, jailed, fined or socially made fun of. If there is no punishment for this sexist woman hating behavior, they will continue doing as much as they can get away with. And they make all the laws and control all the courts. Their words are used as dialogue in all the major movies and TV shows. There is no dominant women’s voice in America, there is male centric contamination everywhere you go. This is the fact of the matter.

    Women need to unite and support each other. All male sexist commentary needs to be blocked from feminist blogs. Women have got to be aware of what this is all about, a complete change in human roles, a complete change in an economy structured to aid men and disempower women.

    Why we even have to bring this up constantly is beyond me. Male professors who invade women’s space, touch their breasts or do ANYthing wrong to women need to be reported, picketed and driven out of the academy. Women have got to unite on this!!

    We are fighting a war women. Men believe they can humiliate and degrade feminists with impunity on the Internet, and they think they can get away with it.

    What will it take before women get outraged that NOTHING about the feminist movement is being taught in schools! NOTHING. When are mothers going to stop having sons in the first place, until men back down and change?

    When are young women going to wake up and understand what this war is all about? Men aren’t going to change unless they are forced to. Men aren’t going to change as long as women are still willing to do free labor in service to these men — cooking, having children, cleaning, kissing up to and tolerating male droning speech.

    I am so angry at this, because I’ve been fighting this battle with the cretans for decades and decades, and still I have to listen to women say “well my husband is nice…”

    I think women are deluded into thinking that men are harmless, or the men they are with are not colluding in this. I often wonder where the rage of women really goes these days— the Rush Limbaugh “feminazis”, the porn online, the women degrading radio programs, the male professors harassing female grad students, the amount of time women waste dating men who are worthless…

    As a radical lesbian feminist, I am angry all the time. I hate it the way women don’t get what this is about. I get sick of the “shock” women seem to feel when they finally get a clue that NOTHING and I do mean NOTHING has fundamentally changed vis-a-vis the place of women worldwide. Now we either want this oppression to end, or we will sit aroung talking about this forever.

    In another 30 years, the 20-something women will finally get it. Women of each generation really need to talk to each other, and get how the system works. Every time a woman does something for free for a man, the system continues. Every time a woman has a male child, the system continues. Every time a woman is silent about a male professor, the system continues.

    Why are women attending churches that refuse to ordain women? Why? Why do women listen to male pastors preach about the inferiority of women? Now what in the heck is this all about? What would it take for women to simply walk out of these churches and refuse to support them in any way? They would collapse overnight. Women have got to walk out, and they have to accept the fact that men aren’t going to change. Men are hopeless and hapeless and clueless and monsters. They hate women, cheat women, rape women, pornify them, and abuse them. Men have absolutely no respect for women whatsoever.

    And nothing with change women. I hate to say this, but if you look around, you will see that women don’t even control a large city, there are no countries owned and controlled by women, there are no governments where women make ALL the laws, and there are no movie companies nationwide where only the woman’s voice is presented in mainstream theaters. Just add up the womanhating scenes in movies these days… women need to stop going to these movies. You have to wonder how half the population continues to be bamboozled here, and I have to say, I think it is the blindness of heterosexual women. Lesbians I know totally get this. We know it is a waste of time to engage men with feminist ideas, because all men are inherently anti-feminist. They all are. They won’t change, and women need to use the power of women’s numbers to force change across the board.

    Could we get 5000 women together to target individual male professors who are infamous? Can we list colleges who keep these men on staff? Can we completely boycott male centric institutions? Can we finally get real tough, real aggressive and can we get mad as hell? Can we targe one major corportion each year, and force it to hire, train and promote 98% women, until women run the entire corporation? Could we do this? Are 5000 women willing to commit to this, meet often, share resources and become an economic powerhouse? Can women commit to boycotting men for a year, and work for the sisterhood?

    I just get so frustrated with the namby pamby nature of women, and I get sick of women going along with all of this.

    There’s a reason patriachy continues, and I think it is the fear women have of finally fighting the war with men that needs to be fought. I think women need to create separate countries, and cities, and take complete control of schools. I don’t think girls should ever have to deal with boys in order to get an education, for example. We should all support women controlled colleges, and create our own programs so that no women have to even work with male academics or be beholden to them in any way.

    I think when you see the woman hatred on the Internet, this represents who men and boys really are. If you don’t get this by now, you are going to be slaves to these oppressors till the end of time!!


  10. Satsuma–I agree with your perspective, but can you please keep the comments shorter (under 400 words)? (Please see the policy on comments here, or in the top left column on the front page.)

    The short answer as to why women don’t band together and resist is that many women benefit from the current system, and many others don’t believe that they have as much in common with other women as they do with men and women who share their faith, ethnicity, region, politics, etc. Sisterhood is beautiful–but (sadly) I just don’t think it really exists.


  11. p.s. for example, my guess is that there are a lot of women who felt free to criticize Jen in the ways she described, although I’m sure that it was people presenting as male who left the majority of disgusting, threatening, and/or just plain nasty comments. Women are acculturated by misogyny as well, and we also are much more judgmental of other women and are nearly as prone to apply narrower standards for appropriate conduct on other women.

    For a few disheartening recent examples, check out the competitive motherhoods on display in the comments here and here, all because 1) one woman wrote openly about her drinking before and after having a baby, and 2) another woman dared to suggest that leaving the paid workforce to care for children is a risky professional and financial strategy. I think feminist women are better than this pointless judgmentalism and name-calling–but we aren’t always.


  12. Satsuma, while I appreciate your passion for this issue and I think you do make some provocative points (especially when it comes to the issue of feminism and religion), a lot of women (myself included) cannot come to a position such as yours because we don’t see men in the same way you do. There’s no doubt that men benefit from the status quo and there’s also no doubt that a lot of men (maybe even more than we want to admit) who have little respect for women; that much is clear. But I’m certainly never going to agree that every man out there is anti-feminist and anti-woman. Do we get anywhere by vilifying every man that exists? Surely there has to be some middle ground.


  13. One of the perverse advantages of working in a field where feminist scholarship is still quite publicly marginalized is that you have no illusions. . . the reality is that when you incorporate gender you change the narrative; so it’s easier not to incorporate gender. When you acknowledge the patriarchal structures that allow you to say some things are none of your business, you need to change your behavior. And if you acknowledge the existence of patriarchy, perhaps your supreme wonderfulness is not all about how great you are, and there is indeed luck involved.


  14. I can type well over 200 words per minute, and don’t have a word counter in the heat of battle 🙂

    I’m always amazed to the degree that women are in denial about who the enemy is in patriarchy. Just who do you think these sexually harassing professors are? What is it that stops women from driving them from the academy, recording their infamy on cell phone videos, marching on their offices…?

    I believe it is women’s fear of facing the world as adults, of not having male attention or male economic subsidy. It is a fearful thing to say no, I will not support male supremacy in the home. Very difficult.

    The people who were the most committed feminists were lesbians. Even in 19th century England, over 63% of radical suffrage groups were comprised of “spinsters.” Perhaps there really is something in the lesbian soul that is horrified by the rapists, the harassers and the plug uglies, and even more horrifying to have straight women defend them all the time. It is a horror to behold. Hope this is less than 400 words!


  15. We can indeed get far by vilifying every man that exists. I have done this all my life. I see no wrong in saying that men hate women, that they oppress women, and that they aren’t going to change. This is a given in my opinion.

    I operate from an idea that if half the human population stopped serving the other half, we’d have an end to male tyranny. It’s very simple. Until I see men radically change their public attitudes towards women, and fight for women only causes “selflessly-sacrificing all their income potential and their entire lives” (the way women have for centuries) I’ll give this species another thought.

    When you’re a lesbian, you simply see things very clearly, when you’re a straight woman and sexually attracted to men, it’s very difficult to get this. But you shouldn’t be surprised when women marginalize themselves, and you shouldn’t be surprised when men sexually terrorize women on the Internet. There will be no change in men as long as women serve them and defend them. Stop defending men! Stop it. Fight for women, and advance the goals of women worldwide. Have self-respect.


  16. I am convinced that the promise for democracy once held by the Internet will not ever be achieved because incivility has now become the way in which things are run online (and off for that matter).

    While I have no doubt that more men than women make overtly nasty comments, and that women are more often their targets than other men, it only takes a few weeks perusing such “lofty” places as the forums at The Chronicle of Higher Education to reveal the deep hostility that can come from women as well.

    I think it’s unfair to cast men as the sole aggressors and women as the only victims. This is even more perplexing when one considers the ambiguous gender identity embodied in many of our nicknames. For instance, American Lit scholars might note my nickname matches that of a famous poetess, but how many people know my sex specifically? [Here’s a hint: I’m a dude!]

    There really does need to be more formal study done of the phenomenon by sociologists, anthropologists, communication scholars, and rhetoricians [I apologize for forgetting any other interested parties]. Sadly, I’m not exactly sure how this could be done with any reliability or validity because of the anonymity and user agreement issues though. To those willing to take up the challenge, I await your findings with much anticipation!


  17. Satsuma, I appreciate your point of view, but I don’t think it’s reasonable or fair. I don’t think men qua men are “the enemy”–it’s patriarchal society, which benefits men, but which both men and some women work to uphold. It’s not as simple as shirts v. skins.

    And The_Myth–on-line rudeness is not a sex-specific characteristic. Indeed, when on-line, we don’t really know who we’re talking to, which is why I talk about people who present as male on-line (whatever their actual sex/gender identity is.) But I think that it’s quite clear that there is more hostility expressed by people who present as male on-line in feminist blogs and other forums that discuss women’s issues.


  18. An interesting corollary to this “backlash” is the fact that, as far as I can tell (and I don’t claim any particular expertise), feminist/gender theory is receding into the background in many emerging areas of historical scholarship. I gave a comment yesterday on a panel about the 1960’s and 1970’s, and while all three of the papers on the panel talked about women, not one of them used any sort of gender analysis. (To be fair, one of the papers was about fashion in African-American magazines, and the gender analysis is definitely going to be in the final project, so I’ll let that presenter off the hook.) I was really shocked by this, particularly since all three papers gave central play to issues of race and class.


  19. Satsuma: you’re right that without an emotional need for men it’s easier to see clearly. But you’re wrong to say “men this” or “men that.” Even worse, “all men are this or that.” That’s what sexism IS. Participating in it, whether it’s the common anti-women type, or the less common anti-men type, is not the solution. Rights and fairness are for all. Anything less than that is nothing but a demand for privilege.

    I agree with you 100% that women should stand and fight. Given the nature of the problem, that’s 24/7, open heart surgery of the soul without anesthetic. Which is why so many people (both genders) would rather do anything but recognize it. I agree with you 100% that harassers should be fired, preferably immediately. That’s not because men are beasts. It’s because fairness is for all.


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