Dear friends and readers,
We’ve gotten into a for once (well to me) enlightening thread on a Women’s
Studies list-serv (WMST-l). It began over in Wompo (women’s poets) and slid
across lists because Katha Pollitt is on both list-servs and got irritated
with a couple of contentious threads which had turned into quarrels (still
mild), at which one woman complained at the contention and said she would
get off or fall silent. Katha’s posting was (to me) a form of scolding: she
basically said men’s way of being in cyberspace is superior to women’s
because supposedly they don’t mind quarreling in public. She wrote in terms
that were insulting to women, but attention catching. By mistake she put this posting onto Women’s studies where the people are more reasonable — it’s a more academic style list with more women academics on it.
I’m very interested in the realities of women in cyberspace and how theirs differs from men’s behavior. Obviously, I spend enormous amounts of time on the Internet, and my experiences here have helped me to mature, become more socially active (go to conferences, meet with friends) I wrote a paper on this which the listowner of WMST-l put on line as part of a permanent set of papers. I’m so bad at nuts and bolts I can never reach my paper over there, so for those who want to see (or read it later) , here it is on my website: Women in Cyberspace.
I had the courage to counter Katha on Wompo and nothing reasoned in response to my posting was sent. Instead I got misspelled mild jeering (using CAPs). At the close of my last posting, I just said, “Come, go ahead, abuse me … ” And one woman did, but the thread died after that.
Katha had said to ignore the posting on WMST-l and two of her friends (women
with credentials like hers, Marge Piercy among them) backed her on this,
but what she wrote was significant. Here is the core:
Before the internet, I never believed the truism that women have trouble disagreeing openly because they place such a high value on harmony, fitting in, not standing out. Having been on numerous women’s lists I see how true this is. They ALL have the same dynamic: sugary mutual admiration, with occasional outbursts of snark that cause conniptions. Yerra makes a personal remark, Joyce slaps her down by appealing to ‘the spirit of the list,” Yerra takes her marbles and goes home. On a coed list, or a mostly male list, a slightly snarky remark would have just been one of those things that happen. A reprimand would be be read as impossibly stuffy, and a threat to leave would be a joke.
I’ve been on wom-po for ages, and let me tell you,with all the mutual flattery (complemented by back channeling of expostulations and eye rolls) and self congratulation for our female wonderfulness it’s pretty boring. I barely take part any more, This is a list so scared of open discussion that “political” posts have to be labelled so the frailer flowers can avert their petals and the illusion of harmonious sisterhood be preserved. Oh no, someone mentioned abortion rights! help!
Can we please put on our big girl panties and talk about things like grownups?
I want instead to cut to the quick, the sudden idea I saw. I often say that the content of a posting is only part of what’s happening the way the content of our words in physical space is only part of what’s happening. For the first time I was able to see how the posting itself functions differently (than say all the stuff that is added on in real space). It’s that we see the posting primarily as either by a man or either by a woman. That comes first. The way writing is primarily seen as either by a man or women (that’s why 90% of what is published in mainstream publications is by men).
Second, the reason men can quarrel openly and not get upset really is they
fundamentally respect one another as men. They can insult and jeer and yet
they are respected and respect one another. I put it that we women don’t
fundamentally respect one another as women. We are taught not to. We may
respect a credentialed woman but she is still a woman. A male homosexual is
respected as a man and identifies as a man first. Lesbians are at the
bottom of a heap of gender types because they are also women.
The books I cited in my first posting tell how much friendships mean to women growing up, how badly women feel betrayed when their friend goes off with boyfriends or drops the other woman for her new “family” or connections. How it hurts. The sense of betrayal.
So when women quarrel it’s not childish.
And the results of quarrels — as the results of rape or any complaint are differently for men than women. Women are punished when they complain and the results of quarrels they are taught will be bad. They will lose the respect of important connections. The punishment meted out will be denied; it will be presented as reasonable behavior. This is where masochism comes in. Women seem to be masochists and accept what happens because they find if they don’t things get worse for them.
My Women Writers Across the Ages, a Yahoo list-serv carries on discussing feminism calmly is we have so few men, the men here are a congenial bunch who agree with feminist values. And a woman list-owner. All of this is highly unusual.
Women quarreling in cyberspace are often quarreling because one or both feels her gender has been betrayed.
If anyone wants to read the more essay-like email versions:
1) I don’t think there’s anything wrong in the way women behave differently from men on lists — as I don’t think there is anything wrong with the women behave differently in life. To find the male model preferable is to prefer a whole host of values and norms that at least some of us have wanted to not to be the prevailing code. The classic and still important book on this is Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice; also about why women quarrel so bitterly, Lyn Mikel Brown, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development;and Girl Fighting: Betrayal and Rejection
Women complain how we never seem to make any progress. Well there are these three books which analyze the phenonomena that Katha has castigated/scorned without looking to see why women behave like this except to imply “coward” or silly emotional creature who bores me. Cyberspace experience is obviously only analogous to real physical life, physical encounters where names and all sort of information are there right away to make the others accountable. Not only empathy and understanding is required to understand why women need moderators on lists, thrive better in some lists than others — it might be recalled that men simply refuse to get onto lists run by women often and get off certain kinds of list-servs that attract women. Does that mean those women’s lists don’t count or are inferior? Men simply disdain what is not consonant with how they are encouraged to behave in our society.
My study of women in cyberspace which is written in a way that looks to find ways to enable women to cope with the experiences they find on lists which are often analogous to what puts them at a disadvantage in life. It should also be remembered women don’t forget what happens in real life — like rape (frequent). I’m upbeat, constructive as that’s what’s wanted in social and public life:
I seek to present material to help us think about what are the obstacles to women using cyberspace effectively, and what can be done to construct cyberspace experience so as to make it more appealing, hospitable and usable for women.
Here though I will break code again and say that indeed the public encounters in front of a whole group of people, most unknown, with no way to manipulate the encounter to your set of values or norms (feminocentric) is analogous to rape (virtual) because it’s public and people looking on are in the position of voyeurs (the term lurkers is a telling one here).
Another aspect I don’t bring up in the paper is that women value friends, they value contacts; they don’t want to lose them, and given their real knowledge of other women’s psychology and their own plus experience of men, they retreat into silence as the really wisest way to cope given the present misogynistic environment. When will we ever stop celebrating the war mentality (which aggression, competition and the rest of what has been put before us as better and more fun)?
WMST-l itself is a list run by women, with women moderators, it has the typical list of rules one finds in women’s lists (not men’s) which are resorted to and I like it because of this and much else.
How are individual women to be heard is the question.
On Wompo I miss Annie Finch’s explicit point of view in how she saw this list as a place for women where women’s values and norms and experiences and knowledge would prevail.
2) The second email adding to original points:
I want to speak again to this one. Much as people still try to deny this, what happens in cyberspace matters — people might acknowledge various govt’s reactions to whistle-blowers, bloggers, privately-sent emails (one-to-one) emails. It also is increasingly central to local affairs. I had thought not to since Gail Dines reiterated what I was going to repeat with more details. That saying women have just got to accept aggression won’t do since many forums in cyberspace replicate the realities of physical space. Men are in charge. I was forced off a listserv (Inimitable-Boz @ Yahoo) last week, and I’m no melting flower on list-servs (or blogs or other venues in cyberspace). It did become impossible to stay because what was implied and not spoken about what I had been writing and what was explicitly said simply ignored everything I had said and the explicit talk became rawly insulting (the attempt was made to shame me), not just snide or a matter of innuendo. The terms of the aggression were misogynistic but if I dared use that word or any like it, I’d be laughed at as a foolish feminist.
Where men are not in charge but constitute the working majority of those who post (and in cyberspace when men become numerous on lists they have been shown to become the active members with only a couple of women maintaining a presence), the same sort of thing occurs, perhaps more muted if at least one of the list-owners is herself a woman. The gender matters. The woman can be very different politically but I’ve observed and experienced nonetheless she will understand and give crucial support to the women poster (sometimes, not
always). It’s like Republican women are mostly pro-choice, and they vote
for shelters for women and children.
We don’t accept the terms in which rape is discussed which (as we saw a
couple of summers ago) allowed in at least three high profile cases, the
case to be dismissed (the Muslim housekeeper in NYC who was raped) or
humiliated and lose her case (the young executive who was intoxicated and
made the mistake I’d call it of phoning the police) and the supreme court
fining parents whose daughter accused frat young men of raping her. We
don’t say we’ve just got to accept this. We try to alter the basic understanding of what’s happening.
It is not a matter of putting “on our big girl pants and talking like grownups.” I talk like a grown-up all the time, even to my cats. The phrase was an irritant.
So I’ve come on this second time because I want also to counter it first
under the aegis of the idea that “older women” are to be assumed to behave
differently in this than younger ones necessarily which is dismissive or
that anyone was being childish. It assumes the problem is the deference of
older woman. I’m not deferent. Another aspect of this particular thread is
some of us come on with more credentials. Not quite the same thing as being
a man (nothing beats that — I’m sarcastic here) but part of power plays. I
speak to Katha the way I do to others — or Barbara Bergson or anyone with
more credentials. This fault-line of age versus youth divides and conquers
us again. In a way being older and who I am and am not frees me (like
Janice Joplin line, freedom’s just another word for nuthin’ left to lose”).
The paradigm of the second wave is implicitly brought in here, but it was
in the second wave people used the word “liberation” and talked about sex
openly. I got myself into trouble (get myself) because I’m not deferent to
And second, women do squabble a certain way but it’s not because they are
childish. The understanding of quarrels and their meaning is different from
men’s. The way women treat one another as girls, what their friendships
mean to one another and how they disrespect one another on lists is different from men’s. I suggest at some level men respect one another as men fundamentally. And women often do not respect one another fundamentally as women. All of us are taught not to – by the society. Look at ads for a start. And they feel betrayed, angered really.
Third, women’s experience of the results of quarrels very different. Third
and fourth wavers (if there is a fourth wave), post-feminists experience
punitive results which teach women silence is the wise policy because of
self-interest works the same. The punitive nature of the result is
frustratingly denied the way rape is called a false accusation (as in you
consented). That’s one of the sources of so-called masochism.
I’ll cut off here as I’ve gone on far too long but I feel these points are
important and need to be dealt with, even if solutions are not easy to see.
Of course most of the replies either ignored my points or saw what I wrote in quite different terms, but one I did think useful for what I was saying.
I think history has given us TWO inadequate models for dealing with conflict, each model loosely associated with a gender role, but available to anyone. In life, we probably all “mix and match” elements of these two inadequate models. On the one hand, there is the “feminine” style of handling conflict (conflict avoidance; conforming to the “feminine” gender role by avoiding direct expression of aggression while channeling aggression into “mean girl” behaviors such as gossip, isolation, manipulation of alliances and social status, etc.). On the other hand, there is the “masculine” style (handling conflict in ways that deny the value of interdependency and rely on inequality/hierarchy; fighting verbally or physically to avoid shame and loss of status by shaming the opposing point of view).
Both of these ways of handling conflict are inadequate. They temporarily stifle conflict rather than truly resolving it, so the conflict usually resurfaces and becomes part of a cycle. There are other, more constructive ways to handle conflict that can lead to better resolutions. Conflict should be seen as a positive and inevitable product of equality. Conflict is inevitable; the only question is how we handle it. If a group can resolve conflict only by silencing it or by creating inequality (“I’m right, you’re wrong, so shut up; your point of view has no place here”), the group has failed. We are products of our culture and our culture has tried to teach us that conflict is threatening to us personally and to our social order. And it has tried to train us to turn to authority figures (ultimately the police or the state) to resolve our conflicts rather than teaching us the skills to resolve them in ways that strengthen us individually while also enhancing our ability to function collectively.
There are occasionally conflicts where logic alone can reveal a “right” and a “wrong”; a “winner and a “loser.” But deeper, more intractable conflicts are not just rational disagreements. They reflect some damage done to the communal bonds holding people together, and mending that damage often requires attention to things such as the quality of communication, and the creation of a group dynamic trusted by all. When Audre Lorde says that our culture has “misnamed difference as a threat to unity” and when she envisions “the creative function of difference in our lives,” I think she is talking about what feminism could potentially contribute to our understanding of conflict and conflict resolution (micro- and macro-) if we look for alternatives to the two inadequate, gender-coded models of conflict “management”/irresolution.