Devaluing women’s words

I am very grateful that the Feministe crew saw fit to bring me in, but I must admit to being very surprised and not feeling quite deserving. I want to deconstruct some of the patriarchal influence that had its role in shaping my reaction.

Now, I’m hardly in a position to judge the value that my writing might have to other people, because I’m coming from inside my own head. I can’t speak to what another person might find valuable; I am speaking to express my ideas, connect with the lovely blogosphere and share awareness of issues that matter to me. But I can say that I frequently worry that my writing isn’t good enough, that there’s some standard that I’m failing to meet, that I will be unmasked as the fraud I really am, who knows how I’ve lasted this long? This worry is so bad that I feel nauseous when going to see blogger friends in person.

And I’m acquainted enough with the patriarchy to see that it’s rearing its head in this thought, and that other women have this problem, too. (Well, I don’t know about the nausea, maybe that’s just me!) Irrespective of what value my writing actually has to the universe – and who can judge something like that, really? – this kind of thinking has a component of misogyny.

Women have long been told that our writing isn’t good enough, that writing is the domain of men. There’s a famous story about feminist science fiction writer Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote as James Tiptree, Jr. Before she was unmasked, one of her editors, Robert Silverberg, wrote about the rumours she was a woman: ‘It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. I don’t think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male.’ Not so much, mate. (Then again, people also thought Tiptree was a pseudonym for Henry Kissinger. Fun fact.) But it’s telling that Sheldon had to become a man to tell women’s stories, and it’s wonderful that in doing so she shook the science fiction establishment. And how many women besides Sheldon have written under masculine or gender-neutral pseudonyms just to get a toe in? How many Internet-based writers have been flamed because of their gender? Women’s words cannot be of value, because recording history, having ideas and being creative are surely the realms of men.

To return to the idea that one will be unmasked as not good enough after all, this is colloquially known as imposter syndrome. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit lately. Imposter syndrome is when you think you haven’t earned your place. I feel it in my friendships, – how problematic to have social ‘leagues’! – in my creative work, so many aspects of my life. On some level I know I have these friends because we care about each other, I do this work because I am talented, I have earned my place, but there’s always the idea that I didn’t earn it. I’m sure most of you know the feeling I’m talking about. It emerges from the same reason why an insult is more cutting than a compliment is affirming: we think the bad stuff must be true. We learn to approach ourselves in a warped fashion: my body isn’t good enough, I sound silly, I’m not smart enough, professional enough, lovable. From our appearances to our emotions to what we have to say.

In daily life, women’s words are seen as less than. I know I’ve stopped myself commenting on blogs many times because I thought, What could I possibly have to contribute to this conversation that anyone would find of value? I frequently silence myself, let a man go first, let him interrupt me, rather than incur wrath by continuing to speak. It’s an old habit, and one I’m trying to break. But the fear of deep booming angry voices is a hard one to overcome. I can’t think where I read this now, but I remember a story about a professor who was careful to let the women and men in his class speak equal numbers of times. There were complaints from male students that the female ones were dominating the conversation. There’s a reason for a stereotype of the irritating talkative woman. Patriarchy finds women’s voices terrifying. We use our voices to speak out against it. And the patriarchy uses its strategies of shaming and delegitimising to make us shrink our opinions and ourselves, smaller, smaller, until we fit the way it wants us to.

So, I am writing here, and the patriarchy – the kyriarchy! – had better watch out. This woman will not shut up.

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20 comments for “Devaluing women’s words

  1. October 26, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    This woman has never been an easy one to shut up!
    I do find a self censor, though, when I fear that my opinions will be dismissed as simply a product of my gender. ‘Oh, she only thinks that emotional factor is important because she’s a woman… she would say that, being a girl … she’s probably hormonal … of course she’s thinking about this issue in terms of impact on families, women are always worrying about babies … she’s one of those feminists … she’s being illogical, naturally’. I so hate hearing those criticisms (or the implication that being ‘womanly’ is a weakness) that I anticipate them and internalise them.
    Is it more soul-destroying to stay silent or to be belittled for speaking? Rock and a hard place, anyone?

  2. October 26, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    On one hand I do agree with your point about self doubt being in part an issue of patriarchy however as a writer the moment you think that you have reached perfection is the moment you stop growing. I think that a certain amount of self doubt is necessary in order to practice this craft.

    There’s a reason for a stereotype of the irritating talkative woman. Patriarchy finds women’s voices terrifying. We use our voices to speak out against it. And the patriarchy uses its strategies of shaming and delegitimising to make us shrink our opinions and ourselves, smaller, smaller, until we fit the way it wants us to.

    This I could not agree with more. I have frequently heard womens speech referred to as hen’s clucking while men are considered to be discussing something of great importance. It is truly difficult to fight against that stereotype. It is such obvious silencing but then we must weigh the sure discipline should we decide not perform femininity. Not to fit is so very difficult when we are taught from birth that we must conform to the status quo. I try to remind myself that trailblazers are often not beloved until they are dead and gone.

  3. October 26, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    On one hand I do agree with your point about self doubt being in part an issue of patriarchy however as a writer the moment you think that you have reached perfection is the moment you stop growing.

    In case I didn’t make this clear in the post, I think self-examination is vital to good writing, but there are factors at play beyond that. The patriarchy messes with my ability to do so properly.

  4. belinda
    October 26, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    I’m so angry right now, I can’t even see straight. I just got done reading the most inflammatory and insulting blog about women I’ve seen in a long time. I’m a long time reader of and new I could come here so we could join together and make the man who wrote that look like the jerk that he is.

  5. Shelby
    October 26, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    And sometimes it feels like “Angry Black Woman” speech is the most threatening of all. Whenever me or one of my friends talks about a group discussion we almost always say we were afraid of “being the Angry Black Woman.” Most times it’s talked about in terms of what we didn’t say (sad, I know), but even when we do speak up there’s this intense anxiety that we’ll be labeled an ABW and ppl will be even LESS inclined to listen.
    The single most frustrating thing I experienced while in college were group discussions in science/math classes. Hoooly crap. I am absolutely AMAZED at my classmates’ ability to completely ignore someone talking to their face. Sometimes I felt like I was being punkd & they were all doing it as some elaborate joke. I would literally give an answer to a question, while the rest of the group was silent, someone would repeat the question, I would answer it again, silence, and then a white chick would repeat what I said and like *MAGIC* we had the answer! Barf. Barf. Barfff.

  6. October 26, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    In case I didn’t make this clear in the post, I think self-examination is vital to good writing, but there are factors at play beyond that. The patriarchy messes with my ability to do so properly.

    Indeed. Accurate self-assessment is impossible if you’re busy listening to the patriarchy’s opinion of women’s worth.

    This woman will not shut up.

    This is the woman I aspire to be. Thank you for sharing your courage.

  7. October 26, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    Never, never, never allow someone to shut you up. Silencing is one of the most vicious things that can be done to a person. It provokes such a visceral reaction in me that it makes my skin crawl.

  8. October 26, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    I needed this today. A lot of times I get so wrapped up in: “Will my writing be good enough?” that a lot of things go unwritten.

    In college I took a class on the Victorian novel, and our professor said that a lot of men then felt that women authors could only write autobiographies or Gothic fiction. Because women would have to write about haunted houses and such because they never did anything interesting.

  9. carolyncarozza
    October 26, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    wimmin can speak from a very different place than men. a strong, confident womon will speak from the truth. i believe that more wimmin are trusted with what they say. i believe that no matter what i say it’s straight talk. i do write from my heart as well as my mind, and if i have something to say to others i am not afraid to say it. we, as wimmin, need to go back to the ’70’s and have consciousness raising groups again. in these groups we examined all the premises wimmin believed about themselves, their role, and the truth. this is when the feminist mystique was written. i say to any womon who has something to say, say it, and stand by it. it is yours.

  10. salimakate
    October 26, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    This post was really good. I hate writing, and when I was in school I always procrastinated, and cried, and panicked over papers that I was assigned. I know that part of it was because I never think my ideas are good, even though I usually got good grades on papers. I am only able to make myself write when it’s the middle of the night a few hours before a paper is due and I’m faced with the choice of writing something or failing the class.
    I really wish I didn’t hate writing so much, or make such a big deal of having to do it.

  11. October 27, 2009 at 2:03 am

    How many of us were trained as little girls that what we had to say was not as important as “how” we said it? I was always being told that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. That was almost always in response to discussions, usually with my father, about some unfairness in the way he treated me. My arguments could be right, but would never succeed, all because he didn’t like “how” I said it. I couldn’t say it any other way! I could not sweeten injustice! It made me angry, and anger was something I was never, ever allowed to express. My only outlet was to write things down. Deep emotion is in my writing, and now I am a writer.

    Throughout my life I have experienced silencing, and it’s ugly, especially when it comes from someone close to me.

  12. Jadey
    October 27, 2009 at 7:30 am

    For me, this topic was one I had trouble understanding until someone explained intersectionality to me, because I was starting to think that I was some kind of crazy-awesome empowered woman who was *never* silenced. Especially in classroom settings. From kindergarten into university, I am usually heavily involved in (if not dominating) the discussions, and my writing and speaking has always been confident. I came to realize that this vocality wasn’t a function of my female empowerment (especially because the women around me were often silent and I was usually talking disproportionately with men), but my other privileges (basically everything except my sexual orientation, on which I pass, and my assigned identity as female). Particularly the fact that my style of learning has always been preferred by the educational systems I’ve been in, and I’ve received extra encouragement and positive feedback because of that (which is sort of a confluence of ablist, class, and race-based privilege). My experiences were positive enough that I never noticed being silenced (although if I’d tried pursuing male-dominated interests, I doubt I’d be saying the same thing). Mind you, I probably have been silenced–I was just willing to over-look it because of the rewards I was given at other times.

    It was chilling to realize that my “empowerment” has been at the expense of other women. I don’t think I inspired women around me to be more confident themselves (I know I never deliberately tried to) — I feel like I was tokenized instead, and justified the status quo of confident, out-spoken men and the occasional woman who can behave sufficiently “like a man”. My out-spokenness has a hard, argumentative edge, and probably put off a lot of people (especially those who often face silencing), rather than brought new voices into the conversation. I regret this.

    It’s a bit different now that I’m going into grad school and am once again at the bottom of the pile academically as well as surrounded by a self-selected group of other fairly out-spoken, confident people. But I hope that I have managed to temper my tone over the last year since becoming aware of what exactly I was perpetuating. Lurking on blogs, *listening* instead of speaking, being an invisible audience to so many incredible, important conversations has been a transformative experience. Obviously I comment and get involved sometimes (*g*), but I’m learning to be aware of my own location, self-reflexive, and outwardly attentive. There are so many more voices I’d rather hear than my own, in the classroom and out of it.

    (FWIW, I am not saying that every woman speaking confidently is a tool of the patriarchy–far from it! My personal experience has been so, until recently at least, because of my lack of insight into my own privilege.)

  13. October 27, 2009 at 9:03 am

    @Margaret: Pfft. How I loathe the ‘tone’ argument. I get it far too often and I can only assume it is because I am … you guessed it, an Angry Black Woman.

  14. Any.moose
    October 27, 2009 at 9:29 am

    The same rings true in the art world. As an appraiser and consultant I am constantly confronted with the “oh, its by a woman” clause. Whether its reflected in the monograph or sales records, or not, the first thing I hear from most men is the rationalizing of the gender.

    I’ve actually conducted tests on unknowing participants in my field to see if I was imagining this behaviour or not.

    Two paintings were presented with anon. signatures, ie. “M. Miles,” one clearly better painted than the other; a self identified Man will be asked to evaluate them. The first thing that happens is the usage of “He” when describing the artist, the better done painting will be reasoned to be better based on its masculine merits, confidence in brush stroke, unity of vision etc…

    When the same two paintings are presented with identified attributions, one being Mildred Miles (F) and the other Mark Miles (M) something strange starts happening – the male subject starts to rationalize around the merits. Statements are presented differently, instead of “confidence” “copying the style of XX (xx being a male artist)” is used or “imaginary not reality based vision”. Consistently everything that was given as a merit is turned into a devaluation.

    When during the first trial the person is given the gender of the artist, after making the evaluation of the female artist having merit, they become confused and immediately say (literally) “that’s too bad” (I’ve actually heard that one, numerous times). The reason “nobody cares about women artists,” “the market is more favourable to male artist”. A valuation of $2000 might come down to $600-800 based on the discovery of gender alone!

    It’s infuriating to say the least. Doing evaluations I do my best to approach pieces individually, objectively and neutrally. As a result my judgement has been called into question more than once based on gender related bias. I’ve been accused of over-valuating works by female artists, even when my valuation is well supported by recorded market sales and known monographs (oh, how the art world loves their monographs).

    When the same is taken to female test subjects the usage of “he” in describing the work doesn’t take place as often or as early (“she” not being used either) and instead terms such as “the artist” are used more often. The evaluation more closely relating to the sales records and the merits. Gender bias does occur, it is present in sales records etc., but usually only minimally and reflectively of our society and rarely based purely from gender bias assumptions.

  15. October 27, 2009 at 10:16 am
  16. FW
    October 27, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    1790 – Mary Wollstonecraft first published “A Vindication of the Rights of Men” unsigned, and the first edition was considered to have sold successfully and it’s points were studiously debated as with other pamphlets of the time. For the second edition Wollstonecraft published under her name and it was not received nearly as well.
    “hyena in petticoats”,
    “illogical and ungrammatical” – said by her future husband
    “… if she assumes the disguise of a man, she must not be surprised that she is not treated with the civility and respect that she would have received in her own person. ” (read: we’d a been nicer if we knew you were a girl)
    “the rights of men asserted by a fair lady! The age of chivalry cannot be over, or the sexes have changed their ground.”

    It’s believed that the reception of Rights of Men lit a fire under Mary’s ass, and 2 years later she wrote Rights of Woman.

    and check out the discussion page of the wiki article on Rights on Men to see the battle still being waged – concerned readers want to make sure that Burke (whom she was responding to) is given proper consideration:

  17. Asenath Waite
    October 27, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    I remember reading an interview with J.K. Rowling around when the 3rd or 4th Potter book came out, and she mentioned that her publisher insisted on using her initials because he didn’t think little boys would want to read a book written by a woman.

  18. October 28, 2009 at 1:51 am

    I find it more disturbing when women attack each other. If you make a comment about sexism, they roll their eyes and mutter something about you being a hairy-legged feminist living in the past. Maybe it’s just that – in my experience – the men who will put you down (I think some bloggers call them Dude Nation, to distinguish them from the good guys) are more subtle about it. Which, of course, doesn’t make it right.

  19. Felicity
    October 28, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    An old but gold book on this topic is Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing. It’s a quick read. It’s slanted toward white English-speaking authors as examples, but the author is aware of that and talks about how the suppression methods affect others, too. Joanna Russ is a speculative fiction author, so she has a lot of interesting quotes from spec fic insiders.

    I haven’t read Tillie Olsen’s Silences yet, but that’s another standard on the topic, focusing on female and working class authors (I’m guessing mostly white from the blurb.)

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