Sluts arise: Why shaming doesn’t work anymore

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about feminism, which I haven’t done for years. Mostly, that’s because it seemed I didn’t have to, because … well … we won.

In the United States and Canada, at least, women have been pretty much doing what they want to for a very long time. At least, that’s true if you’re middle class or better with access to one of those snobby colleges, like the high-falutin’ one I went to. The “womyn’s” bookstore in my town, The Lioness, closed for good a few years back, in part because you could find any title you wanted online, and in part because you didn’t need a a special place to find writing that promotes the radical idea that women can do anything, and have a right to decide their own destinies.

It stopped being radical a long time ago. Or so it seemed.

In just the last few years I’ve met women who do things such as flying C-130s for Coast Guard, saving the lives of horses like Derby winner Smarty Jones, serving (and dying) as war correspondents, running major media outlets they didn’t inherit from their dads and working as electrical engineers, firefighters, police officers, plumbers, ranchers and farmers, long-haul truckers and stockbrokers, actuaries and jockeys.

In short, everything. And to a lot of these younger women, especially, what they do doesn’t even seem special to them. It’s just … life.

Just a generation ago, I know I felt far differently. I started my writing career as a sportwriter, which in those days was a pretty good strategy for any young women who wanted to skip the normal career path of all other journalists, starting at a small weekly and working up to small dailies and finally, to a decent metro daily.

My friend Russ Stanton, until recently the editor of the L.A. Times, followed this timeworn path. His career:

College newspaper (we were on it together), Tulare Advance-Register, Elk Grove Citizen, Visalia Times-Delta, Riverside Press-Enterprise (or San Bernardino Sun, or both, we lost track for a little while there), Orange County Register, L.A. Times Orange County Edition, L.A. Times (reporter, assistant editor, section editor, all the way to the top).

Mine:

College newspaper, Sacramento Bee.

Which was not to say my route was all that easy. I was a sportswriter at a time when I was decidedly not wanted in that corner of the newsroom, and the level of what would now be called sexual harassment was pretty high. Example:

In the days before Teh Interwebs and smart phones, sportswriters called in their stories from pay phones, where “re-write men” took down the bones and fleshed out the story. Part of this process was called “taking dick,” as in “dictation,” from correspondents in the field. And of course, this term was good for  yuks among the men of the sports department.

As a “stringer” — a paid intern, basically — I sometimes covered games and called in stories, and sometimes I worked the desk typing in stories from others. Like all other women in non-traditional jobs, I knew I had to put up with a raunchy atmosphere, even when the “humor” was directed at me.

I’d come in from a game that ended in time for me to have the luxury of writing the story in the newsroom, and I was with an editor who was going over my article on his monitor. In those days (1981-2?) the lighting in the old newroom wasn’t good for computer monitors, which were clunky old beasts with fuzzy light-green letters on a darker green display. To be able to see words on the screen, most people put a hood on their monitors to cut the overhead glare. All the rolling office chairs had butts in them already, so I got on my knees next to the editor so I could see the screen as he worked over my story.

Since I was done with my story early, I was to stick around and type in notes from those still in the field. One of the other editors took a call then, looked at me and said,

“I need someone to take dick. Gina, I see you’re already in position, and I bet you’ve taken a lot of dick. Get this one, willya?”

And, of course, I did without comment while they all had a good laugh. Because that’s what you did then, and because that wasn’t even near the worst thing that had happened to any woman who dared to be a sportswriter in that era. Or even in the same newsroom as I was in, for that matter.

Oakland A’s slugger Dave Kingman sent a rat to the pressbox for The Bee’s Susan Fornoff, with a tag that said “My name is Sue.” Michele Himmelberg was assigned to cover the ’49ers,  and when The Bee forced them to let her have the same access to the locker room as her colleagues, she was smeared.  In Boston, the same fight to grant Lisa Olson access to the Patriots ended up with her moving to New Zealand to get away from the death threats.

I was mostly an editor by then, and I remember the calls for Michele, from men who’d assume that there was only one women working in sports, and who figured on hearing my voice that I was her. Typical call:

“You fucking BITCH. You wanna see COCK? My friends and I will show you all the COCK you want. Watch yourself, CUNT. We’re coming for you.”

And people wonder why stuff like “unfriending” me on Facebook or posting pictures of me with a dunce cap on just makes me laugh.

You gotta try a lot harder to get under my skin. I once heard my grandfather telling his son — my father —  that he was ashamed of him because he wasn’t “man enough” to “control” me, and that I was a “whore” and a “slut” for wanting to be around naked men in locker rooms. (I actually wasn’t in any locker rooms by then, but this was about the same time as the Lisa Olson/Michele Himmelberg muck-ups so he likely figured I was.)  My father didn’t argue — there wasn’t any point, really — and I never heard a word of anything but support and pride from him.

I haven’t thought about any of this for years, maybe even close to a couple decades, until recently.

  • Not until the pink-ribboning social conservatives at the Susan G. Komen foundation decided to cut breast health screening for women because Planned Parenthood was involved.
  • Not until men decided that denying women access to birth control was an issue of “religious freedom’ when it’s really about nothing more than regaining control. (For a good perspective on this, see Kathy Flake’s piece, here.)
  • Not until a Congressman decided to hold a hearing on women and not invite any.

And mostly, not until the words “slut,” “roundheel” and “prostitute” jumped back into the fray in describing the woman who was not allowed to testify before that committee. I felt those words hit me viscerally, and I was flooded by the memories — of being asked to “take dick,” of  being threatened with gang rape by a stranger on the phone, and of listening to my grandfather tell my proud father that I was nothing more than a whore who needed to be put in her place.

It all came up like bile this week, a bitter taste of how it used to be. It made  me hurt, then made me fear it would be that way again here. (It never has stopped being that way elsewhere, course. Do you see women here? Here? In the last two days I took in both of these extraordinary — and extraordinarily courageous — works of journalism and had the same thought as I did in looking at this picture: Where are the women?)

Except that it’s different here now, it really is.

We do not accept this anymore in America. Komen and Limbaugh had to retreat from the worst of their behavior. Rick Santorum, should he get the Republican nomination, will be crushed by a incumbent president who’s really not all that popular.

A woman still flies a C-130 over my house every night for the Coast Guard. The best equine surgeon — actually, the best two — I know are women, and so are both of my dog’s oncologists, my dentist, my accountant, my attorney and about half of my editors. My brother’s shoulder was fixed by a female orthopedic surgeon whose gender wasn’t an issue. And my friend Carol’s wife was asked out of retirement to design the electrical system for a new building to handle overflow offices from the Pentagon.

We are not going back, not now, not ever. And now, we just need to make sure we’re still going forward, because it’s pretty clear there’s still work to do.

Shame on us? Shame on you. We’re not taking dick any more.

43 Responses to “Sluts arise: Why shaming doesn’t work anymore”

  1. Mary C says:

    Howdy.

    This is semi-off subject but I live in MO and, coincidentally timed with the latest brouhaha caused by the gasbag, Limbaugh is about to be inducted into the “Hall of Famous Missourians”. His (taxpayer funded) bust will be displayed among such honored MIssourians as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Harry Truman.

    Not only has he contributed NOTHING to society, he’s lowered the bar of public discourse. To have this vitriolic misogynist represented turns my stomach- but it isn’t surprising considering the extreme-right wing republicans running the MO legislature. blech.

  2. S in Ruralville says:

    My boss is an older, male veterinarian and owner of a clinic that’s been around over 20 years. He’s always had 1-2 associate vets work for him, but has never hired a female vet – only other males. In a profession that is now dominated by women, the odds are rather… odd. All his techs/underlings have been female, though, except one short-lived assistant.

    He also made a joke recently that his wife (stay-at-home mom raising their 3 children), is so busy that “she needs a wife.” Har har.

    I have a fantasy where, because of financial reasons or something, he’s forced to sell the business to a woman veterinarian and then work under her. It tickles the dark, shriveled cockles of my heart.

  3. Kristy says:

    Thank you so much for this Gina! You are right. We will not take this anymore in America! Forward not back!
    Kristy

  4. Emily says:

    I didn’t learn until recently that my mother wanted to be a mathematician, but was encouraged in college (mid-1950s) to pursue social work instead (which she did) because math was for men. And then she was miserable for most of her professional life, and never considered herself a person with a career – just a series of jobs. Makes me mad, and sad that I can’t talk to her about it. A friend of hers told me. But when I met Phil Donahue when he brought his show to Maine in the early 1990s, I told him: “My mom raised me to be a good feminist Democrat like you.” I was proud to be able to tell him that, and am proud now of the values my mom passed on to me.

  5. kb says:

    We know Limbug misrepresented the testimony but still, why is it when the slut label is tossed around there isn’t any mention of the men who must involved if the women are birth control swilling sluts?

    I’m not far behind Gina in age either. In time to see the hard won battle. I grew up hearing my mom tell me how much she loved working with her dad in his carpentry business – until she was graduating from high school and was told to find a job suitable for a girl until she got married. If she had been a boy “and Son” would have been painted on the side of the truck. Then I watched her have a career nearly as successful as my dad’s and she came home from work, gave my dad her paycheck and made dinner from scratch every night. When I was in high school my dad told me if they could only send one of us to college, they would send my younger brother. Turned out they did pay for part of my college education, but they paid for all of my brother’s college even though he flunked out more than once and never finished.

    My first career was in public aquariums and zoos where there were still few women and many of them had put up with a lot of bad treatment to be there.

    So I’ve been annoyed too by the young women who seem to have no appreciation for the battle that was fought for their benefit as well by the older women who won’t give a break to a young woman because no one gave them one.

    Now the minority is hacking away at the edges of our rights. I’ve got news for Frothy and pals, not going to happen.

    Thanks for the clever rallying cry, Gina. We’re not taking dick :)

    Obviously a subject I feel strongly about because I can’t shut up. Sorry.

    • Gina Spadafori says:

      “Thanks for the clever rallying cry, Gina. We’re not taking dick [anymore]”

      Oh good GOD, my 78-year-old Mom is already clutching her chest about my revelations on the Honest Dog blog, here.

      Knowing I am responsible for “We’re not taking dick anymore” as a rallying cry might kill her.

      Or actually, as a woman who went into teaching because that’s what women did in the ’50s, she might appreciate it.

      I will say, however, that my parents had an amazingly egalitarian relationship for their time. My mom handled the money and my dad did lots of the cooking. Home projects they tackled together, from painting to landscaping to carpentry. And they both encouraged all three of there children to follow their dreams, no matter what. Not bad!

      I recently saw a contractor’s truck with the name of the father and “AND DAUGHTERS” on it.

      Limbaugh and the rest? Extinction burst. We’re seeing it.

  6. Kim says:

    Say it, sister! You were just a couple of years ahead of me, and I well remember the furor over women sportswriters. I also remember that it wasn’t until I was 13 or 14 (1973 or ’74, if you must know) that some Ivy League colleges began admitting women.I remember being asked in an interview if profanity in the newsroom would bother me (umm, no; I probably would have been contributing to it myself). I never had a problem describing myself as a feminist; I’ve never understood the negative connotation it had with some women. Regarding younger women who deny or decry the label, it just goes to show that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

  7. Janet says:

    Great post. I know that the harassment still exists in many jobs but I am encouraged by the fact that younger women my daughter’s age just don’t ‘take it’ any more. They feel confident enough to stand up for themselves and are not easily intimidated. She has a friend in Canada who is working her way up as a NHL journalist and she has had her share of condescension,ridicule and outright hostility. She stands up to the guys who do that. Also, some older men in the field, seeing her determination and professional attitude, have been mentors and aided her in getting jobs. Obviously her standing up for herself has not hurt her among the men who are able to get beyond the old male attitudes toward women. That, at least, is also encouraging. I think it is also interesting that among the younger players she doesn’t find a hostile attitude.

  8. Bobbie says:

    Once you get away with murder, they say it becomes easier to murder again. Sadly, the Radical GOP –insane–has been taking over the party for the past 20 years. Who’d think we’d live so long to see Gingrich as a viable candidate even on paper? That’s a path. Radical/Insane GOP leaders won’t tolerate question from anyone. They sacrifice this country for presumed personal power and wealth, and their efforts are backed by enormous wealth and power in place.

    Who is the Slut? The Prostitute?

    And who are the Suicide Bombers sent out by the Radical GOP machine?

    Life is short. Eternity is a long time.

    Good job keeping it honest, Gina.

  9. Giselle says:

    How can I share your post on Facebook?

  10. Liz Palika says:

    When I enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to Miramar in San Diego (It was still a Navy base then – watch Top Gun) I was the first woman military police at Miramar; then the first dog handler as well as the first woman dog handler. My Commanding Officer told me flat out, “We’re watching you. If you screw up, there will never be another woman MP.” When I left, there about twelve so guess I didn’t screw up.

    When I enlisted in the Marine Corps (because my husband was a Marine) I was the only woman in a battalion of 1300 men. My husband and I lived in base housing and the other wives called me a lesbian or a whore because I was a Marine. Again, I was told by my CO that my success or failure would affect any future women Marines being assigned there. Again I succeeded.

    I never considered myself a feminist; I am not a politic person. But I do take pride that many women followed in my footsteps. Seeing the numbers of successful women in the Marine Corps today pleases me no end.

    • Gina Spadafori says:

      I’ve never considered you a feminist, either, Liz, just a woman who is so busy blazing trails and getting things done that she has no time for discussion of what you will or will not be “allowed” to do.

      You lead by example, and always have.

    • Dawn Reed says:

      Love this discussion because it brings up so many memories: Quality Assurance job interview in Wisconsin sausage producer (“Shit lady, we don’t even have a john for you in that building.); second woman missile maintenance officer at Grand Forks AFB, ND (You will be living with your sponsor in base housing because all of the single officer quarters have shared bathrooms); one of a dozen women chosen to go the the AF Academy to prepare for the entry of women cadets in 1976; etc. I felt it was my responsibility as a feminist to do well so that noone could find fault in “letting” women into nontraditional areas. And I guess that served me well in my 21 year career.

      I’m OK with younger women not appreciating all that was gained for them (really, when we were their age did we appreciate the suffragettes?), but I do have issues with the erosion of our gains, and the continued attacks on birth control, abortion and other issues.

  11. Jan Haag says:

    Bravo, G.! I well remember those days and your story about “taking dick” in The Bee newsroom. Thanks for writing and posting this. I’m gonna dig out my grrrlpower button and wear it all week!

  12. Cheryl says:

    This article is one that every women of child bearing age should read – especially if they plan on having children:

    http://www.nwlc.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/nwlcbelowtheradar2011.pdf

    There has been a secret war against women all along and now. because of sewer mouths like Santorum and Limbaugh, more of it is coming out in the open. Women need to pay attention – this affects everyone – it is not a your problem because you are liberal issue.

  13. MichelleB says:

    For what it’s worth, I can assure you that sexism in the workplace is still alive and well.

    In some careers/regions it may not be as overt, but it’s not gone.

    In others, many of the situations described here (both in the main post and the comments) are still commonplace.

    Working in the Midwest, in processing plants, in the Ag business,as an engineer…heck at my plant they had only bothered to put in a women’s locker room and bathroom about five years ago. And we were to be damn grateful for their generosity. And hey it’s not their fault they didn’t have many female supervisors (don’t even mention upper management)…it’s just too much of a pain to train them because they’re just going run off and have babies anyway.

    • Gina Spadafori says:

      I have no doubt that sexism remains, and it’s not even hard to find. Wal-Mart seems to have it down to a science, a big bully-boy capable of keeping women down while escaping the consequences of legal penalty (so far). And I have a good friend who’s a top writer for trade pub — and the only lead writer there who’s not also a columnist.

      And yes, I’ve dealt with it myself many times from men who assume I’m my writing partner’s administrative assistant, not his co-author, ghost-writer and brand manager. I had one of them in a meeting announce, “I’d love a cup of coffee” and look at me pointedly.

      The look he got back pretty much ended that, and quickly. He managed to get it himself with no further comment. I’m pretty sure he realized that if I’d gotten it he’d have had third-degree burns on his testicles from the coffee landing in his lap.

      • MichelleB says:

        Ah, the classic pointed look. Always a favorite.

        Though I count it as a point of progress that most men, having received an equally pointed look in return, are embarrassed or flustered. For whatever that’s worth.

      • Speaking as a 23-year-old reporter, I have no idea what I’d do if some dude asked me to get him coffee….

        Reading accounts from the women who came before me has made me very, very grateful for all the groundwork they laid down. Working as a foreign correspondent in Cambodia, I encountered pretty much no gender discrimination….certainly helps that journalism has an increasingly female face these days.

  14. H. Houlahan says:

    The one useful concept/term I’ve taken from behaviorism is the “extinction burst.”

    In cheerful moments, I look at the right-wing attack on women (among other knuckle-drag-marks in the sand) and think “extinction burst.” This one is a doozy, but it too shall pass.

    In less-cheerful moments, I think of The Handmaid’s Tale and check my ammo stocks. By which I mean my bookcases. But also my ammo.

    Can I get a pass on wanting to slap 20- and 30-something women who work as military police and teevee producers and truck drivers lawyers and right-wing politicians who start sentences with “I’m no feminist, but …?”

    • Gina Spadafori says:

      Heather wrote:

      “Can I get a pass on wanting to slap 20- and 30-something women who work as military police and teevee producers and truck drivers lawyers and right-wing politicians who start sentences with ‘I’m no feminist, but …?’ ”

      I used to feel that way, but now … those women are feminists, whether they admit it or not. And so, too, is the Komen VP for women-killing who was forced out onto to lucrative wingnut lecture circuit after her attack on Planned Parenthood backfired. Because were it not for women who did what she hates them for, she would never have been in the position she had in the first place.

    • MichelleB says:

      “Can I get a pass on wanting to slap 20- and 30-something women who work as military police and teevee producers and truck drivers lawyers and right-wing politicians who start sentences with “I’m no feminist, but …?”

      Out of curiosity, why do you wan to slap them? I dislike it but perhaps for different reasons.

      “Feminist” is a label and the meaning of that label with vary over time and between individuals. If asked directly in my early 20s I would have said I am not a feminist. However I was both aware of and grateful for the women (and men) who came before me and paved the way for me to pursue a career path that would have been far more difficult a generation ago from a cultural standpoint. And I strove and continue to strive to conduct myself and expect my coworkers to conduct themselves such that the next generation faces even fewer barriers.

      What bothers me about people of any age starting their sentences with “I’m no feminist, but …?” is that whatever they have to say should stand on its own. Why the need for the disclaimer? Say it or don’t say it but commit to and stand by whatever it is you have to say.

      • H. Houlahan says:

        Why do I want to slap them?

        Because they are reaping the fruit of feminism in their ability to live their lives as they goddamn well please, while going out of their way to insult those women (and male fellow-travelers) who never got that opportunity, but spent their lives fighting for women not-born.

        I disagree that they are feminists whether they know it or not. Selfish, yes. Feminist, no.

        I’m old enough to have had a few elderly female professors who, having achieved success in the academy during decades when such paths were generally closed to the little ladies, absolutely *hated* the young female academics, and in some cases spoke openly about how women generally should not have such important and demanding jobs, and (swear to doG) mostly didn’t have the brains for it. Because they were having to give up the position of only girl at the boys’ club, which they’d grown to like once they got some power.

        Those women had lived feminist lives, but they weren’t feminists, either.

        So it’s not ONLY young women who have no sense of perspective and a wholly “I got mine, bitches” outlook.

    • I take pride in correcting women who say “I’m no feminist, but…”

      Yes, you are. You’ve got a degree and a job, don’t you? Connect the dots.

      I think a lot of women in my early-20s age cohort think feminist = man hating lesbian with hairy legs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

      The association puts them off, since they haven’t bothered to research what a feminist actually is/was. It mostly makes me wonder about the public education system. My mother unabashedly refers to herself as a feminist, and I try to model the same behavior by labeling myself as such whenever it comes up.

      (Also…love the extinction burst observation.)

  15. mary says:

    incredible post…right on Gina!

  16. Cheryl says:

    right after reading this post, I switched over to Pinterest and landed on this:

    Slut (noun) a woman with the morals of a man.
    Single (noun) a man who makes jokes about women in the kitchen.

    It would appear that men like Issa and Santorum have been watching to many episodes of Mad Men or reruns of Leave it to Beaver. Too bad the women in their lives aren’t punishing them for their stupidity.

  17. Terri says:

    Boy, does this bring back memories. At a job interview in 1974, fresh from my graduation with a B.S. in Chemistry, the male interviewer asked if I would cry if a supervisor criticized my work. He also asked me if I knew what a Phillips screw driver was. Finally he told me I got the job since they had to hire 2 girls. Back then, it was annoying but not unexpected. Today? I’d probably punch the guy in the nose.
    We will not go back.
    Great post, Gina!

  18. Deb says:

    AWESOME post. Thank you so much for writing this.

  19. Stephanie says:

    except that women have to make choices that men don’t have to make… While we say we have those choices… men don’t have to choose family over career because they have a wife who will work 20 hours a day trying to get ahead in her job and career and then come home and work the second shift of caring for the house and children. Men don’t have to make those kind of choices. When a child is sick it is still generally the womans responsibility to take the day off or cart kids around..men can work the overtime and the special projects and be totally devoted to their job because they have a wife at home to take care of all that messy family stuff; to many womens income is still viewed as supplementary… and while women can choose any career they wish the statistics regarding women in high level positions are still abysmal; it only equals out for women who choose not to have families.

    There is still a long way to go… is it better, absolutely but it is certainly far from equal.

    • Gina Spadafori says:

      I think men have to choose family vs. career in a different way. I know more than a few men my age who regret that they weren’t there for their children because of career expectations for them, or who have throttled back their careers to be there for children now.

      Raising a family isn’t easy for men or women, in this country, thanks to policies that fail to support parents — and “family values” people like Santorum who promise to deny families the benefits he used to care for his own children.

  20. David says:

    Pitch perfect.This is sheer brilliance, Gina.

  21. Laura Thompson says:

    It’s not just the shaming, it’s the utter hypocrisy of Republicans who want to deregulate big business but be all up in women’s business.

    Not to mention the hypocrisy of Republicans who have had less-than-stellar track records in the sex and fidelity departments themselves suddenly assuming the roles of moral arbiters.

    And Limbaugh? Let’s just hope some female pharmacist invokes a consciousness-raising clause and refuses to fill his Viagra prescription. God knows what he’d call her.

    • I want that female pharmacist to throw in a few nitrate-containing meds into his viagra bottle just to mix it up a bit- don’t you?? Then he could call her anything he wanted as he lay dying on the floor from the drugs he is a slut for taking anyway.

  22. Brenda says:

    Guess its time to stand up and be counted. Hey Rush!!!! I hope you are never stupid enough to run for office because guess what??? Im a slut too, and I vote.

    Gina…great column. We have come a long way, even from the early 70’s when I grew up. Aint no way they are gonna make us take even a baby step back.

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