Who’s a Crazy Bitch Then?

I was interested to read an article (not such a recent article in fact, but I’ve only just come across it via Twitter links) describing the misogynistic name-calling of senior women in Canadian universities. Headlined ‘The “crazy/bitch” narrative about senior academic women’, the author Jennifer Berdahl, a professor of leadership studies at the University of British Columbia, specialising in gender and diversity, discusses how these words are bandied around to diminish senior women in a department. As she says

‘how could [I have] not seen the misogyny in it?’

referring to her own experience as a grad student when she took the words at face value. As a tenured professor she states,

‘I now wonder about their stories, their silent suffering, and how they processed and coped with the lack of kindness and respect they received from students and colleagues.’

What intrigues me about her essay is that crazy and bitch are not particularly words I associate with misogynistic name-calling in UK academia. It seems to me, from my own experience, that senior women are not so much explicitly insulted in this country as ignored.  Think Miss Triggs in that well-worn 1988 Punch cartoon, where the woman’s words need to be repeated by a man if they are to have any impact. Most women of my acquaintance recognize only too well that feeling of being passed over, their words unheard and their views disregarded. Sitting through committee meeting after committee meeting where you permanently feel invisible is probably as demoralising as name-calling, but it is different. (It is a great relief to me to have got beyond the stage of being invisible; it helps, of course, frequently being the committee chair! I hope in turn I have learned the important art of being inclusive in my chairing, amplifying people’s words where necessary, particularly those of women.)

The words I hear (about myself and others) are different. Some particular favourites – please note the ironic tone – are ‘emotional’, ‘passionate’ and ‘not-a-shrinking-violet’. I’ve certainly been called all of those and felt diminished as well as angry as a result. ‘I can hear you’re getting emotional’ was a particularly obnoxious phrase used to me once to stop me in my tracks (only too successfully) when I was winning an argument. But to be told I was ‘too emotional’ to do something or to take on some role is a phrase I have heard more often than I would like. I used to take it at face value and think, if only I could school my face better or get my feelings completely under control then maybe I’d be taken seriously. It has only been in the last few years I have worked out this wasn’t about emotion per se at all. After all, men get emotional too – they are just more likely to express it by flushed faces (OK, women flush but men have red faces) and raised voices; by table-thumping and throwing things. Oh yes, I’ve had things thrown in my direction, if not actually aimed to hit, and only ever by a man.

Men losing their tempers does still seem to be acceptable behaviour in a way a quivering lip or a moist eye does not seem to be. Being accused of being emotional is not about the actual reaction to what is going on; it is a statement that ‘you ain’t like us and never will be.’ It’s just a slightly more tactful way (to be charitable) of saying you don’t belong and there’s no hope you ever will. All those years of trying to quash what I was feeling in case I lost agency turns out, as far as I can tell, to have been so much wasted effort. I probably still lost agency anyhow. ‘Passionate’ likewise seems to convey, your behaviour is not like mine (i.e. male-by-default), it is a bit too much, OTT, you should reduce your enthusiasm level (these are points I made once before here on this blog). Nevertheless, a quick Google search shows that both Alice Roberts and Brian Cox have been described in various write-ups as passionate, so perhaps I should put aside my aversion to the word and it really is less gendered than I hear it.

But ‘not a shrinking violet’? Could that ever be applied to a man? (I don’t have much time for women being called ‘feisty’ either, because again it doesn’t seem to be applied in the same way to men as being an inappropriate in-your-face way of behaving). These words are designed to make women feel somehow wrong. Nevertheless, to take me back to where I started, crazy is not a word that I have been aware has been applied to me or other women I know. Crazy, with its connotations as horribly applied to Carole Cadwalladr, infamously referred to as ‘crazy cat lady’ by Aaron Banks and his ilk, is clearly a term of insult hurled at powerful women, but it’s not one I recall hearing in the context of female professors. Bitch I have heard, but much less in academia than elsewhere.

So are crazy and bitch more at home in the North American environment than in the UK? I put that question out over Twitter and the limited response I got suggested that the Netherlands was much worse than the UK for remarks like this and that, one optimistic tweep suggested, perhaps we should credit Athena Swan for this relatively benign environment. Or is it that, my academic followers probably being primarily scientists, that STEM subjects – being so very male dominated, certainly in a field like my own – simply ignoring the few women is a more effective strategy than individually naming and shaming them as crazy and bitches? I don’t know and to some extent I don’t care.

Whatever strategy might be implemented for isolating, dehumanising and excluding women – or any minority – needs to be rooted out and eradicated. Women, just like men, come in all shapes and sizes; with varying degrees of empathy and tendencies to being maverick; with more or less patience or subtlety; with a quick temper and/or a ready smile for everyone. We are, let us remember, all equally human. We cannot, must not, assume that crazy is inherently associated with the female of the species (or indeed with cats) or that the characteristics that the word ‘bitch’ conjures up aren’t shared by many men.

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