Sexism in SFWA (and the world)

by on Feb.18, 2014, under Articles, Culture, Gaming, Video Games, Writing

You don’t have to look very far these days to see sexism but you do have to know what you are looking for. The problem is that most of us are effectively blind to it, both because it is kept behind close doors and  because it is hiding in plain sight. And when people, particularly women, call attention to it, they’re often labeled misogynist, or simply told to “laugh it off”. Even when sexism is dragged out from behind doors for all to see, it is easy to claim that it is happening to just one person, or a small group of people, hidden away, and not a systemic problem within our society.

Noted and award winning author Mary Robinette Kowal was slandered by some of her peers in the Science Fiction Writer’s Association (SFWA) the other day. Male members of the organization made comments via the organization’s public email listserv. One called her a hypocrite based upon her public views as a feminist and what clothing she chooses to wear to award ceremonies, as well as simply calling her phony and incompetent.

To her credit, Mary has offered a response which, rather than simply attacking back, called attention to this attack and focused instead on making it an example of sexism and to make note that this is not an incident she is facing alone, but that women inside and outside the SFWA suffer all the time from what is effectively verbal abuse.

In her response entitled”Me, as a useful representative example“, she says the following:

Then I replied to the messages saying, “Honestly, I’m fine. Four years in office inured me to this so mostly I’m just laughing.”

And this is the part that I feel I should draw attention to — I was “mostly” laughing. I was also having mild stress reactions. Dry sweats, elevated heart rate. I was ready to shrug them off as, “Meh, doesn’t materially affect me. I’ve seen worse.”

Until someone pointed it out that I was basically saying, “I’m inured to being abused, because I was abused for years.” See… the things those folks are saying in that public forum? When I was in office, they would email that bile directly to me and because I was an officer, I could not choose to ignore it. I had to read every single one. And I had to reply politely to them. Strangely, sometimes I had trouble doing that, but a polite response was the one that was expected. Now? Being out of office for two years, I can say whatever the fuck I want, but most beautifully, I don’t have to read the emails.

So this is why I feel weird about writing about this. My impulse is to tell you all that I’m fine and that this has no material affect on my life. And that is true. But I also know that I am a useful representative sample of the abuse that happens to other women.

Too many places, too many women, get this sort of unwelcome attention and commentary about what they were wearing but no one does anything. It’s always, “Laugh about it” or “Just shrug it off,” or “Ignore it and he’ll go away.”

You see how well that last is working?

So, I really, truly am fine. But watch what happens to me now that I’m posting. Read the comments when they happen. Note the people who say that because I’m talking about the abuse, I must be begging for attention.

Take me as a useful representative example. And know that I am not an isolated case.

It is sad that we need examples and I applaud Kowal for providing one. And we do need one. I recently was reading an online article about a video game that was in no way related to gender equality. In the middle of this author’s article, he says the following:

…this is, after all, a game where half the punchlines are “ogling women is funny” (and I say that as a staunch anti-feminist)…

It stopped me reading right in my tracks. It took me awhile to comprehend that the initial statement meant that the game wasn’t necessarily to be taken so seriously as it relied upon humor like men staring at women. Yet I couldn’t understand why he felt compelled to add the anti-feminism qualifier, to declare that he was staunchly opposed to a society where men and women are treated equally without discrimination or abuse, be it physical or emotional.

Actually it seems unlikely that the author is an active proponent of sexism. Instead he is likely ignorant of the amount of sexism that exists in our culture and the harm that it does. Instead he is reacting to the backlash that accompanies attempts to educate people regarding this harm, shielding himself from it by claiming that he is not a feminist. This backlash is what Mary Robinette Kowal wants you to look for in the coming days.

That backlash will be just some of the sexism that hides in plain sight.

Apparently, these guys don’t want women to write science fiction by Aja Romano []
Me, as a useful representative example by Mary Robinette Kowal []
Cheap Arts by Silvia Moreno-Garcia [Silvia]
Mary Robinette Kowal Offers Herself Up as a Useful Representative Example by John Scalzi []
Does Bravely Default Hate Atheists? by Geoff Thew []


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5 Comments for this entry

  • Pat

    While I’m in agreement with your article’s premise and the specifics of most of it, I’m not sold on the last little bit there. When someone says they are an anti-feminist, it does not necessarily mean they are “staunchly opposed to a society where men and women are treated equally without discrimination or abuse, be it physical or emotional.”

    I am not staunchly opposed to those ideals, and in fact think that a society that discriminates against a group of people is hamstringing itself, but I would also describe myself as an anti-feminist, or perhaps more explicitly I am anti-the-current-incarnation-of-the-feminist-movement. I am for equality. I am opposed to a great deal of what the feminist movement is currently attempt to achieve and do under an umbrella of “it’s good for all woman.” or “it’s good for all people.”

    It is, like you said, more likely that the author is relatively ignorant of either the current condition of sexism in either his or any society or the effects sexism has on a given society, but just the statement “anti-feminist” doesn’t mean “anti-equality”. It can mean a lot of things. Hurray for English.

    • Nojh

      I’m curious what goals of the feminist movement you are opposed to. I’ve been lead to believe that the primary goal (at least of the slowly growing 4th wave of feminism) is basically equality between all genders.

  • Pat

    The over-arching concept that is typically expressed by people who identify as feminist activists is equality between all genders. However, this is not a solitary achievable goal. It needs a lot of little things to be done to make it occur. It has to be broken down into the goals of the actual activist groups who are actively working to do something that they believe is working toward the bigger picture.

    It is with many of these activists that my issues lie. Some activists are making honest efforts toward making the treatment of women by duly elected government better, or even by not-so-duly-elected governments (see Africa and the Middle East). But some are using feminism as a cover to change something that they simply don’t like or as a cover to advance a different political or social agenda.

    For instance: There are some feminist groups who are attempting to stop people from talking out loud about being anti-feminists. They are attempting to do this through laws against such talk (or web-talk: e.g. blogs, websites, etc.). I’m not for this primarily because they would be attempting to restrict first amendment rights, and basically instituting thought crime, by banning anti-feminism talk under an umbrella of “making things equal”.

    Being a feminist activists inherently ties you to being associated with groups like these (and the worse ones that are little more than socialist political parties or male-hatred groups but still call themselves feminists) in the minds of most people. Heck, just saying “I’m a feminist” can easily prompt the question “what type?”. I’d much rather be called an “equalist” than a feminists simply because it does not come with the same baggage and is more descriptive term of what I am actually for.

  • Nojh

    I understand what you’re saying. Its the same thing as someone calling themselves a Republican or a Bronie. There is a social stigma against the word because of the actions of the members of the group.

    However I assert that, similar to Furries, the feminist movement doesn’t have this stigma because of the actions of its members but because of the reactions of outsiders focusing on negative aspects of the group and treating them as the primary aspects.

    Feminism has had a unconscious, and some believe deliberate, backlash against it since the third wave in the 1970s. A little bit of research can reveal that this is belief that has been growing in prominence lately. There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence. A great example is the “straw feminist” of sitcoms in late 80s and 90s. Examples include Marcy on Married With Children, or the feminist protest groups in the movie PCU. They provided an easy to grasp concept of a feminist being laughable ineffectual misogynists, attempting to push an anti-male agenda after already “winning” equality back in the 70s. Because of them I grew up thinking feminists were exactly that and it wasn’t really until college that I learned differently.

    Which I think is the core issue. Feminism isn’t a term that should be discarded. I think that trying to distance oneself from feminism, to claim to be equalist or defining some new term, is only hurting the ultimate goal. It is disregarding all the progress of the first three waves of feminism and throwing away the momentum those waves created. It is dividing the movement and creating the appearance of infighting, muddying the message, and effectively making it easier for people disregard the movement and its goals, if not outright fight them. And ultimately it is only going to hurt the movement for gender equality, if social backlash can strip away and “defeat” the feminist movement, it will take that much more effort for any future movements to succeed.

    So yeah. Claiming to be an anti-feminist is to be claiming that you are “opposed to a society where men and women are treated equally without discrimination or abuse, be it physical or emotional.” Because feminism means, historically and still today, fighting for the equality between all genders, races, and people in general.

    If that message is getting muddled, we need to fight back with education. Answer the question “What type?” and explain to those people what feminism means and that there really shouldn’t be types. That everybody should be a feminist.

  • Pat

    Interesting. It appears that what you are saying is that no matter what exactly a person means by “anti-feminist” if they say it, you will interpret it as “opposed to a society where men and women are treated equally without discrimination or abuse, be it physical or emotional.” because to you that is what saying that means.

    I’m all for education, but trying to force everyone to believe a word that has stood for a decades long movement that has included a large number of people in a variety of different organizations across many countries that stood for, accomplished, and failed to accomplish a variety of goals that have been seen as both positive and negative to the societies they affected, means a single specific thing is a little too much. I’d rather put the onus on people to understand one another better before disagreeing with each other. Of course that’s probably a more difficult goal.


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