New Year’s Roundup: Plus ca change edition

Hope your 2012 is Dy-No-Mite!

Well, friends, Happy New Year and all that crap.  We’re back home on the High Plains Desert, and it’s sunny and reaching into the 50s and 60s this week.  Fun!  I will miss feeling like Jaime Sommers running at sea level for the past two weeks, but it’s time to get back into running at 4,713 feet elevation-shape again.  While I’m out, here are a few linky-dinkies to keep you amused, if not informed. 

  • Kyle Smith of the New York Post asks, “Why do feminists reject their ultimate icon, Margaret Thatcher?”  Maybe the better question is why isn’t Margaret Thatcher a feminist?  “‘I owe nothing to women’s lib,’ Thatcher said, and at another point she remarked, ‘The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.'”  Duh.  I forgot:  feminists never do anything right, and everything is always our fault.  Women’s careers are never enabled by the work of previous generations of feminists–no, in fact women only profit by heaping scorn on feminism and feminists.
  • From the annals of it’s all mom’s fault:  this problem has a name, and it’s momYes, 1950s middle-class mothers, in addition to being blamed over the years for causing autism, “smothering” their children, and sending a generation of upper-middle class Easterners into a lifetime of psychotherapy, are now being blamed for Public Health Menace #1:  OBESITY!  Awesome!!!  It’s like there’s nothing that can’t be blamed on a generation of women who were just following orders–doctors’ orders, as the article makes perfectly clear, but I guess “1950s physicians may have triggered obesity epidemic” wouldn’t generate as much interest.  Heaping blame on a generation of women who survived the Great Depression in childhood, answered Uncle Sam’s call to labor for the war effort in the 1940s, and then obediently gave up their factory and office jobs to returning servicemen to go home and make babies and participate in consumer society in order to combat the Communist Menace, is not just historically dubious, but it’s also just nasty and aggressive.  Someone has a mommy issue, I guess.  (Don’t miss the advice she gives about breastfeeding, which of course is the solution to all ills:  “Women should breast-feed for at least six months after childbirth or — better yet — take one year off from work and breast-feed.”  Talk about re-creating the 1950s all over again!  I need a Mother’s Little Helper after just reading this bullcrap.) 
  • Tenured Radical offers a thoughtful post on “What I learned at my first job,” as she prepares to move to another institution.  Congratulations and good luck!
  • Here’s a question for all of you historians and grammarians out there:  do you say or write  “a historian,” or “an historian?”  I’ve always thought an historian to be a rather affected (as well as outdated) construction, but I learned recently that a colleague of mine is telling our graduate students that an historian is correct.  (Here’s my personal beef:  no one ever considers how dumb and distracting this sounds to people named Ann or Anne, for some reason, and there are an awful lot of us who are in the historical profession.)  So I say “an historian” no, Historiann yes!  (After all–as Eddie Izzard might say, “because there’s a f^(king AITCH in it!”)

28 thoughts on “New Year’s Roundup: Plus ca change edition

  1. If “a history of the motherfucken Jameson distillery” is not pronounced “an istory of the motherfucken Jameson distillery”, then “a historian of the motherfucken Jameson distillery” should not be pronounced “an istorian of the motherfucken Jameson distillery”. So yeah, this “an istorian” shitte is just bogus in-group gibberish with no purpose other than to define an out-group of supposed ignoramuses. Accordingly, your “an istorian” colleague is a pompous douchebagge.


  2. Other changes were afoot in the mid-20th century, of course: the growth of suburbs, a car culture and modern conveniences. The fast-food craze was launched with the first McDonald’s in 1961.

    Nonetheless, Sothern thinks there must be more to the story for the changes to have happened the way they did, at warp speed: “There had to be physiological and metabolic changes in our bodies.”

    Translation: there are a hell of a lot of things that happened around that time that all probably contributed to the current rate of childhood obesity. But let’s blame women.

    Also: a suggestion to tell overweight women not to have children? Aaarrgh! “Sorry, fattie — you don’t get to have babies like any other woman, but it’s your own damn fault.”

    Makes me want to spit.


  3. Notorious: yes, exactly. I’m much more persuaded by the sociological, environmental, and climatalogical effects on weight in human populations. Why is it that Michigan and Mississippi are states with high rates of obesity? They’re both high poverty states and states in which it’s uncomfortable if not impossible to be outdoors and take exercise for several months of the year.

    I found Tara Parker-Pope’s discussion of obesity last week much more illuminating. Clearly, people’s bodies and metabolisms are different. Having a body that clings to fat and resists weight loss was probably excellent good fortune for the survival of the species for most of human prehistory and history.

    It’s obvious to me that the “obesity epidemic” has many fathers, and not just one bad mommy. But it’s so much easier as you say to blame women rather than own the issue as a culture.


  4. The article itself is also a good argument for why major newspapers ought to hire at least one science journalist. The argumentation is crap, and there’s no real effort to get any scientific background. It’s all “something must have happened” and “this feels right.” Which is fine for dinner party conversation, but not for reporting.

    I remember in an undergraduate English class we had to find some editorial or opinion piece in a newspaper and dig out all the logical fallacies. My group had a hard time finding one that offered us enough to chew on. And yet now, you find the news pages full of these things.

    (Why the change? Can we somehow blame mothers for this, too?)


  5. Yeah, the science discussed in Parker-Pope’s essay in the New York Times Magazine yesterday–which science is not all that new; there was stuff from at least the 1970s or 80s about the metabolic resistance of fat cells to the prospect of “starvation” triggered by dieting behaviors–seems to shift the responsibility for obesity from my 1950s mom’s generation (she lived and cooked a couple of suburbs over from Levittown) to Mother Nature herself. Either way, the iconography of the Times Mag table of contents spread is sobering: a wide-eyed American Girl doll of the year on January 1, dragging her “FREE doll-sized gym bag*! (*available while supplies last)” into a stormy future defined by Newt Gingrich, Parker-Pope’s piece on “The Fat Trap,” and a profile of a “former riot-grrrl rocker” who “refuses to settle.” Plus the news-stand price of the Times goes up!

    The a/an issue got brief mention here several years ago (12/29/2008), since which no one has topped or toppled Wendell Tripp’s classic (if bizarre) note on the subject: “How to Disenvowel a Charging Historian” (_Wisconsin Mag. of History_, 1970).


  6. Thanks for the point about Margaret Thatcher. Everyone is talking about her with the film and these conservative jabs at feminism are starting to infuriate all over again.

    On the “h” question, I agree that “an historian” sounds super pretentious, but it also doesn’t make grammatical sense, since the “h” is aspirated. If I wanted to be pretentious myself, I would look to the French, who have rules about liaisons with an aspirated “h.” One should never pronounce the first “s” in “les haricots,” for example. So if the French respect their aspirated “h,” why shouldn’t we?


  7. It’s a question mainly of British vs. American usage, with a healthy dose of tradition mixed in. The Brits traditionally say “an historian” (nothing to do with modern Cockney pronunciation, though it may have something to do with Early Modern pronunciations of h, as “an historian” goes back at least to the 16th c); some of them are loosening up on this now, I believe, though it may be a matter of adapting usage to audience. Americans, with their simplified spelling system owed to Daniel Webster and his ilk, mostly prefer “a historian,” except that those trained or otherwise influenced by Brits naturally enough echo the term used by their teachers. And of course if a teacher has come down hard enough on someone for using the “wrong” term, such responses tend to get passed on to the recipient’s own students. By and large, though, I’d look to national origin or at least nationality of influential teachers, rather than assuming pretention.


  8. Thanks, Dame Eleanor. My colleague (the one who insists on “an historian”) is neither British-trained, nor a British historian, nor is he (in Comrade PhysioProf’s term) a “pompous douchebagge.” But maybe there’s some old Don somewhere in his intellectual genealogy who trained his professors.

    I seriously have no memory of this being an issue at all in grad school, or anywhere in my professional life. Everyone else I know writes “a historian/a historical fact, etc.” But I used to have a high school history teacher who insisted on “an historian”–that’s probably the last time I heard the construction used on a regular basis.


  9. I’m a Brit, and “an historian” drives me batty.

    Happy New Year to you (and if it isn’t a perfectly rosy year, it will be a woman’s fault).


  10. “A historian,” of course, for the reason DSF mentions (aspirated H). And this particular historian, having just sent off an article, is also a happy historian. Same aspiration, same indefinite article.

    Happy New Year!


  11. Dame Eleanor: And of course if a teacher has come down hard enough on someone for using the “wrong” term, such responses tend to get passed on to the recipient’s own students.

    I once worked in an office with two other former students of my MS graduate adviser. We were impressed (and pleased, truth be told) by how obvious his imprint upon us was. We certainly adapted his lessons to our own interests and ambitions but it was clear in the ways we approached problems that we had been trained by the same person. Also, we all rode with some fairly specific grammatical burrs under our saddles, involving imprecision in word use, the overuse of ize, and some common discipline-specific misspellings.


  12. “A historian” is common usage in this Canadian province where so many other Britishisms reign supreme.

    Margaret Thatcher? Interesting but so NOT a feminist and so not female-friendly from what I read about her political career.

    And with regards to the latest ‘blame the mothers’ article? Bah, I say. Bah! I think that any editor and any writer who perpetuates these kind of stupid explanations ought to have their names published on a journalistic wall of shame!


  13. That Thatcher article was just so irritatingly wrong and not just because it begins with a strawfeminist to set up its argument. Thatcher wasn’t style conscience? The woman went to elocution lessons and reinvented herself very carefully to produce that image. It was not just some personal non-fasion statement; it was skillfully image working. She didn’t get ghettoized by ‘women’s issues’- hmm, well she was education secretary and she was the opposition person for housing, so if we want to characterise these as ‘women’s issues’ then she did indeed work in this area. She also voted for the legalisation of abortion.

    And the stuff on her husband and kids – I didn’t realise that what feminists wanted was to subordinate their husbands and put their careers in front of their kids? I thought that perhaps women wanted the right to have successful careers and a husband and family, but in this Thatcher was no different from many other women who do this everyday?

    Anyway, I agree that a lot of the problem feminists have with Thatcher is that most of us come from some sort of left-wing background (so we don’t think reducing taxes is necessarily ‘good’). But some of us are also left-wing because we were raised under Thatcher. Because we came from mining communities that saw their industries destroyed by her economic policies, and become areas of long-term unemployment, poverty-stricken, with poor health and levels of high substance sbuse. And then we saw those people demonised as ‘lazy’ and ‘dole-scroungers’ for not working. And, for that matter, her economic policies did lead to economic rejevenation in the south and particularly in banking (policies that she recognised would co-exist with high levels of unemployment- this was a decision she made), but also with a lack of regulation and low taxation that ultimately led to a global financial crisis. Go Maggie!

    I also think the whole anti-feminist thing goes to her economic principles. She really did believe that people’s social position was a matter of personal choice, so that we don’t need to pay respect to our feminist foremothers (or anyone else) and we don’t need to provide policies to help the disadvantaged, because they could choose to live differently. Not believing in society really was at the heart of her individualistic worldview, and it is also this that means that feminists can’t get behind her – how can a social movement endorse somebody who doesn’t believe in the efficacy of social movements?

    On an unrelated note: I was taught that you used ‘an’ for a soft ‘h’ and ‘a’ for a hard ‘h’. In a Scottish accent, historian has a hard h, so it is ‘a historian’. But because I put this down to accents, I don’t regulate ‘an’ or ‘a’ in my marking- do what you like.


  14. I say: Historiann? F^ck yeah!

    Glad you liked the post. I am insanely happy about the state of my life right now. Come to OAH & I’ll buy you a beer but not an oyster, ’cause oysters in MIlwaukee sounds gross.


  15. “Everyone is talking about her with the film and these conservative jabs at feminism are starting to infuriate all over again.”

    It is irritating. It’s almost as though Thatcher would have and could have become the PM of the UK even without the efforts of those tiresome feminists in the suffrage movement, say, just because she was an “iron lady” with a teflon-coated hairdo and a strong will. Hey gals! there was never any need to secure the legal to vote and to hold public office (so tedious, with all the petitions and the theatrical campaigns): you just had to be the right sort of woman with the right sort of attitude, and the doors would have opened for you on the strength of your own exemplary exceptionalism.

    Almost everyone likes or admires Meryl Streep as an actor, and now Streep’s likeable/admirable qualities will be transposed onto the public image of Margaret Thatcher. Which just goes to show you: if you live long enough to have your past self played by an A-list Hollywood actor in a big-budget film, you *will* be forgiven for your creepy friendship with General Pinochet.


  16. I never heard, or perhaps noticed, “an historian” until I moved south of the 49th parallel, despite the prevalence of British and British-trained faculty in Canada, but I hear it all the time now. Oddly, it only seems to be used to despite the profession–I haven’t noticed “an history,” but “an historian” is frequent, though it still rings oddly to my ear.

    Per Janice’s and Feminist Avatar’s comments above, I’m now wondering if the lack of the “an” in Canada could be due to the strong Scottish influence on English Canada or English Canadian universities. On the American side, I’ve noticed a much greater consciousness of regional (and sometimes socio-economic-class-based) accents in American universities than in Canadian ones (perhaps because there are many more pronounced regional differences in the US than in Canada)…maybe the consciousness of the “an/a historian” stems from generally higher tension surrounding localized accents.


  17. The second sentence should read “it only seems to be used to describe the profession”–my apologies for poorly-edited late-night comments!


  18. A historian. Really.

    And those silly women in the 1950s, doing what doctors tell them to do.

    To follow Mary Catherine, it’s important to add that Thatcher had a rich husband.

    Happy new year!


  19. “Women should breast-feed for at least six months after childbirth or — better yet — take one year off from work and breast-feed.”

    Please, please, Dr H., may I use the C-word, since this “scientist” is so damn essentialist she should wear a vulva uniform?

    But TPP coming out as a fat woman was essential — so much of the anti-obesity rhetoric, spearheaded by Times columnists, is fat-person-bashing, as if the drive to demonize crack babies grew up to target DM2 poster children. It’s one thing to prescribe behavior for others, and another to testify about ones’ self and struggles.


  20. Excellent point, cgeye. I’ve made the same fat-crack connection here a few years ago, as you may recall. For some elites, obesity is the big taboo.

    I had to wonder about all of the advice to fat women not to have children until they’ve lost weight. Transhistorically, it’s low body weight women who suffer amenorrhea and the inability to conceive.

    What does it say that the “feminine ideal” body of our age is probably an anovular/amenorreahc teenage model? It’s the same culture that claims to value children, but refuses to pay for decent schools and parks for everyone, and permits so many of them to live in food deserts blighted by industrial pollution.


  21. So… “In 2009, the Institute of Medicine introduced limits on how much weight an obese woman should gain during pregnancy; critics felt the board should have gone further.”


    “Women in the 1950s and 1960s — think Betty Draper on the hit TV show “Mad Men​” — were generally advised to restrict weight gain in pregnancy to as little as 10 pounds. Inadequate nutrition in some of these women could easily have programmed their babies to catch up on growth during infancy — and studies suggest such growth spurts increase the risk of later obesity.”

    Well, this seems to be headed in a good direction for everyone. But then, I’m not very sophisticated in certain ways and haven’t gotten past “fat women shouldn’t breed” into the realm of argument and reasoned discourse. That’s the kind of thing that ought to shut down polite conversation a lot faster than it ever does.


  22. Well, I’m late to the party here (catching up on my favorite blogs after getting back in to town), but about that pregnancy – obesity business. There are a zillion problems with the NYT article. Another one is the definition of “fat.” There can be real problems at, say, a hundred pounds overweight. But women see an article about fat, think they’re twenty pounds over, and decide “OMG that’s about me.” Uh, no. But if the NYT actually cared about health, they’d publish articles that sound like something in the New England Journal of Medicine but with shorter words. What are the chances of that?

    Kind of OT, but another issue associated with the recent rise of obesity is one of my pet peeves. The big question is “what’s changed?” Yes, more fast food. Yes, much more advertising for fast food. But another biggie that’s rarely mentioned is endocrine disruptor pollutants spread through the environment. These substances are similar enough to hormones (thyroid hormones, sex hormones, etc.) to have an effect on the body, but not a normal effect. They change metabolism, fat deposition, and other related processes. And they have been increasingly distributed in water and food only in the last few decades.

    Of course, cleaning that up would require top to bottom changes in whole industries. Much easier to tell women to diet.


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