icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Distasteful Talk and Defining Experience

I’m walking past the muted TV to see the headlines but evade the talk on The Story and The Donald. Yet I’m glad that others have the sound up and are talking about male behavior. We should have more of it, as it seems belatedly clear that many people, both women and men, missed the consciousness-raising stage of the feminist movement in the 1970s. Apparently today’s audiences need this candid conversation on radio and TV, as well as in the e-mails that flood my inbox and probably yours. Of the many computer messages I’ve gotten, by far the most thoughtful subject line was “internalized misogyny.”

I think we should coin that usage, much as we did with “homophobia” in the 1990s, “sexism” in the 1970s, and “racism” in the 1950s. Yes, children, there was a time when these problems had no name -- and thus were easy to deny. Because we victims could not define crime against us with a word, we were expected to suck it up and to pretend that the hurtful behavior we experienced was not quite real. In our vast English language, there was no name for what we knew was true.

Instead, we were told not to speak about it, that it would reflect badly on us and not on the perpetrator. If we did speak, we often were told that we had imagined the offense or were exaggerating something that wasn’t intended to be offensive. Far too often, our objections to sexual bullying provided an excuse to ridicule us with cruel laugher -- and if we didn’t find the “teasing” to be funny, we were accused of having no sense of humor and being unable to take a joke.

Yes, I am using “we” and “our” deliberately. I’ve had many such experiences, the first serious one when I was eleven years old and living with my older sister in Washington, DC. Any woman who says she never has been sexually harassed or felt the subtle threat of rape is living in denial – and probably in fear of men who insist that she agree. Even on the lesser level of indeterminate intentions on the part of an immature male, girls are left with confusion on how to respond and exactly what is going on in the adult world.

I remember Jerry Knutson, who routinely pounded me with snowballs in my Minnesota girlhood. “That’s because he likes you,” my parents explained. But I didn’t understand then and I don’t understood now why girls should like someone who physically attacks. I know that Jerry, the son of music teachers, probably knew no way to get my attention other than throwing things. It’s a sort of progress that now, if a girl encouraged that, she probably would be called “enabling” the boy. We need long public conversations on this complex subject, as well as change in teachers and parents that encourages girls and boys to see each other as full human beings. From their earliest days, children should develop true friendships based on respect, not power.

Name It

It was NOW and other feminist organizations that put a name to “sexual harassment.” I remember when the late legislator Helen Gordon Davis was trying to pass a bill to address this elusive form of employment discrimination in the 1970s. Before we had that phrase, it was very difficult to get other lawmakers to understand what we were speaking about, let alone to try to write legislation that would outlaw it. Yet we know sexual harassment always has been a factor in the marketplace.

One of the immigrant biographies that I used in my first book, Foreign and Female, was Rosa Cavelleri, a faithful Catholic. She had been married against her will to a truly evil man who repeatedly and savagely battered her, but Rosa nonetheless followed his orders in going from Italy to America. She worked as his near-slave until he insisted that she manage a bordello in a mining town; he was illiterate and needed her abilities in reading and math. After much prayer, she decided that God would consider this justification for breaking her wedding vows (which she never said, but the priest didn’t hear her non-sound). With her two children, she ran away and sought legal protection when he followed her. Not long afterwards, her advisor at the Chicago Legal Aid Society became angry when Rosa quit an apparently good job that the society had gotten for her. She had to fumble for words until she finally got the point across: it was because her employer wanted her to be “like a wife to him.”

Nor was this the only such experience that I found in studying the lives of hundreds of both immigrant and native women. I’ve spent decades doing that, and I repeat: very few women get through this world without encountering men who confuse power with passion. This is not love; it is conquest. To be sure, I’m not saying that every man is guilty of such behavior – far from it. Like my Hubby and my brothers, most men are honorable and decent -- but the multiple actions of a few make the behavior seem average. The only way to end it is for men to call out other men, to stop excusing the diminishment of women as jocular locker-room talk. If you can’t say it in front of your grandmother, don’t say it. It’s called honesty, and it’s what real men do.

“No Girls Allowed”

This kind of bad behavior starts with the “internalized misogyny” so cleverly termed above. I like the phrase because it is handy shorthand for the deeply profound, truly internalized attitudes that we find in every society, the ingrained belief that men are superior to women and boys superior to girls. Indeed, female infanticide still exists in some places because girls are deemed a burden. This almost never actually is true, as studies of primitive economies show that females do much more work than males -- to say nothing of reproducing the race. Even in economies where inheritance and property laws work against them, women take the lead in preserving families. Yet because misogyny has been so internalized for so long, the preference for boys still persists.

Mothers, too, sadly internalize this prejudice. Asian women especially have taken far too much pride in spoiled sons while abusing their daughters-in-law. Until their British colonial rulers outlawed it, women in India were expected to burn themselves to death on their husbands’ funeral pyre, lest the widow be a burden to society. Even in Europe, tradition long demanded that parents make it clear to daughters that they were inferior to their brothers. That wasn’t hard, as girls could see from the beginning of their lives that their brothers were college bound and they were not, that boys could become priests and soldiers and lawyers and doctors, and they could not.

The “no girls allowed” tree house so prevalent in cartoons began with the reality that men had professional and social organizations, while women did not. George Washington, for example, belonged to the Masonic Lodge near Mount Vernon, but there was no similar place for Martha to get away from home. Not until almost a century later did the Masons authorize their female auxiliary, the Eastern Star. You’ve heard of that, right? Vaguely? What about auxiliaries for the Elks, the Lions, the VFW, and on and on? Guys spent money on building clubhouses and stopped there routinely almost every day, and yet, in some inexplicable way, women got a reputation for excessive socializing! This is so far from the historical truth that we need an occasional reminder.

October 1850: The First National Meeting of and For Women

I’ve written so frequently about the very first feminist meeting that I trust you remember it was at Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848. Localized follow-ups followed, but more than a year passed before women from more than one state banded together into what they called a national convention. At an anti-slavery convention in Boston during May of 1850, nine women caucused in a “dark, dingy room” about a convention for their own civil rights. They scheduled it for the third weekend of October, when harvests would be over and before winter set in, and decided on Worcester, Massachusetts, because it was a central location for the nine.

Paulina Wright Kellogg Davis, who lived then at Providence, Rhode Island, undertook most of the planning. She sent “earnest private letters” to those she hoped would sign a call for the gathering, but even though she thought the call was “moderate in tone,” it nonetheless “gave the alarm to conservatism.” The response was painful, as she said: “Letters, curt, reproachful, some almost insulting…came with absolute refusals to have the names of the writers used.” But some eighty visionary people, including famed philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, gladly signed. The alarmed conservatives thus missed their chance to enshrine themselves in history.

On “the bright October days” of the 23rd and 24th, “a solemn, earnest crowd of noble men and women” assembled from nine states. Sizable delegations came from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont, while two people, a man and a woman, came the long distances from Iowa and California. Luminaries included the great abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth, as well as several members of the family of 18-year-old Louisa May Alcott. The biggest star was Lucy Stone, who had not yet become famous for retaining her maiden name, but already was known as a strong speaker against slavery. Like others on that circuit, she had learned to expect greetings from jeering mobs armed with rotten eggs and even stones. I wouldn’t be surprised if she experienced some locker room talk, too.

Among the many women there who should not have been forgotten was Harriot K. Hunt, who was called “Dr. Hunt” by her Boston patients. Even though the era provided no opportunity for women to earn medical degrees, she was so respected and so successful that she later offered Harvard $50,000 to admit women to its medical school. Harvard, home to too many conservatives at the time, refused the endowment.

Abby H. Price was another who had obtained a medical education on her own, and at the 1850 convention, “presented an address on the social question.” Organizer Paulina Davis did not need to define “the social question:” these listeners were sufficiently willing to deal with reality that they knew the phrase referred to prostitution and venereal disease.

“The debates on the resolutions,” Davis said, “were spicy, pointed, and logical,” creating “crowded audiences through two entire days.” That was October 1850 and this is October 2016, and although much has improved, the need for “spicy, pointed, and logical” debate has not disappeared. Let’s have it, especially the logical part.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
Make a comment to the author