Deflecting Feminist Concerns (or, Yeah, Sexism is Alive and Well)

Tuesday, 30 August 2011 15:59

I wasn’t intending to write this post for another few weeks, but after a recent frustrating email exchange, I realized that I needed to write something about the still inexplicable presence of sexism and misogyny right now. I want to note some of the explicit and implicit incidents of sexism that I have experienced and observed in academia and fandom over the past few years.

During my time as a graduate student, I had to the deal with a certain amount of sexism that I imagine most other women in academia or similar professional institutions encounter. Generally, the sexism I encountered came from my male peers and not faculty (although there were certainly a few incidents at that level – and I have heard countless horror stories from female faculty about their own experiences with sexism). I think only once – *once* – did a male colleague openly admire my intellectual capability. I don’t think that I present myself as a blathering fool, but I can recall many times when a male peer looked at me like I was completely stupid.

So I came to expect disinterest and disregard from most men when it came to talking about my work with feminist SF (and also with posthumanism, corporeal feminism … really challenging and cool stuff!). I thought that once I got the PhD, maybe I would get some more respect – after all, we all experienced the same thesis writing process and we all passed the same tests with the same expectations – but no, not much has changed. The result is that I am hesitant to talk about my research or I down play its intellectual rigor, which is an unfortunate habit that I am trying to break (I have a supportive feminist man as my life-partner, who is always telling me to speak proudly of my accomplishments).

Just recently, at WorldCon, a man in the audience at my paper presentation challenged me on my academic standing. After I introduced myself, noting that I earned my PhD through studying feminist post-cyberpunk SF and am now an independent academic, he immediately began asking me what university level position I had attained (by listing the various tenure track positions as if I was unaware of them). I explained again that my academic career was degree terminal. The sexist nature of his query was commented on by a wonderful woman (an aerospace engineer – awesome!) that was also at the talk – we ended up noting the various incidents of casual sexism we witnessed during many panels at the con (from male panelists speaking over female panelists to outward deflections of relevant feminist issues). It seems that whenever feminist politics break into traditionally male-dominated communities, there is also a debate about whether or not the issues being raised are valid. Discussion is derailed quickly, as the status quo is eager to move on to other less upsetting topics.

In my position as a SF researcher and capital “F” Feminist, I’m noticing the same tired old responses being bandied about by those who are unwilling to recognize inequality and their implicit support of it. When I mentioned the previous and continuing contribution of feminist SF writers to the (post)cyberpunk genre at one panel, only one of the four panelists directly responded to what I had said. The more general response was to give personal anecdotes about encounters with female writers and edge the conversation towards more neutral ground. I am entirely annoyed by hearing the old line: “I know one woman [writer, editor, publisher, etc], so there is no gender imbalance [in SF publishing, fandom, academia, etc].”

I imagine that most people reading this post are the choir: you don’t need the sermon, you’re already preaching it. To any readers who don’t believe that there is significant gender imbalance in academia, fandom, or society at large: you are wrong. Feminists are not writing and speaking about gender and sexism because we are seeking a second opinion or validation. We are stating the existence of a problem and looking for ways to fix it. I feel that the gains made by first- and second-generation feminists are being undone – all while we are being told to sit down and relax. I definitely will be writing more about feminist issues (which for me intersect with anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-ablist rhetoric) in the future. I do believe that North American culture is at a cross-roads: as financial crises and war create a fearful public, the instinct for too many is turn back to conservative values and politics. If the feminist movement is to survive, we need to make sure that we don't stay quiet about the incidents of sexism -- both casual and egregious -- that we encounter.


  • Comment Link Kathryn Thursday, 08 September 2011 13:32 posted by Kathryn

    Thanks Laura! I appreciated having you in the audience - you helped ground the discussion about race we were having (instead of it being seen as a purely 'academic' subject). I wish that there was more writers like you out there!

    It is funny/sad that I didn't really recognize that man's behavior as patronizing at the time it was happening. His challenge of my academic standing is something that was fairly routine while I was in academia -- I have too many unfortunate memories of being sized down by male peers and faculty.

    Anyways, meeting you was certainly a bright spot. Go feminist post-cyberpunk!

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  • Comment Link LauraJMixon Monday, 05 September 2011 19:53 posted by LauraJMixon

    As you know, I attended your talk, and I don't recall whether I said this at the time, as we were both rushing off in different directions. But my friend Terry and I noted that particular man's patronizing behavior toward you and were appalled by it.
    Your presentation was excellent--deeply thought out, well argued--and eloquent. It was such a pleasure to discover a fellow travel who feels as passionately as I do about science fiction's potential to address issues of gender, race, and (dis)ability with post-cyberpunk tropes.

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