Defending One’s Position As The Token Looks Bad, Like An Unwashed T-Shirt

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, February 22, 2013 9:50 EDT
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In honor of my apparently 3rd wave sensibility, I give you this ironic rendition of recent events.

I’ve been watching with interest as Harriet Hall—a doctor, a skeptic and a blogger at Science-Based Medicine—flails around in her very determined but bizarre effort to denounce Women in Secularism (where I’ll be speaking, so come on out!) and all other efforts to improve women’s participation in atheist/skeptic movement stuff: It’s an amusing performance that veers between embracing deterministic arguments (she’s fond of the women-just-aren’t-as-into-that-rationality-thing-and-that’s-just-how-it-is-and-why-question-it argument) while insisting she is too a feminist, and, in the grand tradition of internet rabbit holes, getting into a long, digressive, but admittedly interesting debate about the meanings of words like “gender”, “sex”, “identity”, and “orientation” with Will at Skepchick. Hall has an interesting pedigree as a pioneering pilot and flight surgeon, which has been wielded to exempt her from criticism for her ideas, but to which I say means that it’s important to be even more careful when examining her biases.

Why? Well, it’s not a given that if someone is used to being one of the few or even lone woman in a group of men that her instinct is to kick down doors and try to get more women involved. On the contrary! It might end up reinforcing a belief that men are braver/smarter/more logical/etc. for ego-flattering reasons. If you’re the lone woman, you can tell yourself, “Most women aren’t cut out to play with the big boys, but I’m the exception. I’m spectacular!” Admitting that there might not be more women because of institutional bias and discrimination—and working to get more women into the game—would mean you lose your place as the Special Lady Who Is Better Than All Other Ladies Because She Is One Of The Guys.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that Hall went from being the special lady in the boys club of the Air Force to being the special lady of the skeptical world, one of the rare female faces in a sea of men. Being the token woman makes you feel powerful, after all. Ann Friedman wrote an awesome piece about tokenism and how being a token is a privilege that I want to quote:

Are there benefits to being a token? The workplace provides a helpful analogy: Think about your experiences with older women in male-dominated professions, women who are used to being the lone female in a pack of bros. They’ve earned their spot in the social order both despite and because of their gender. It’s both a badge of honor and a rarefied role they have to protect — which may be why, in my experience, they can be cold to young female newcomers who stand to threaten their status as an exception.

And I get it. At least, I think I do. Sometimes people (almost always men) will tell me that I’m “not like other women” — meaning I’m aggressive, I make dick jokes, I drink whiskey, stuff like that. I usually roll my eyes and say something like, “Lots of women are witty” (true), or “All of my lady friends drink Jameson” (mostly true). But I confess that, deep down, I get a little thrill to be distinguished from the pack.

When I first got into political blogging, there weren’t very many women in the mix.  A lot has changed in the past few years. Now women tend to be leaders in online innovation, mostly because the belief that computers are too “tech-y” for women has given way to new stereotypes about women being phone-and-laptop-obsessed (which has its own problems, but at least doesn’t make women feel like they’re weirdoes if they like being on computers)  and because new controls make it easier for women to manage the inevitable barrage of harassment from easily threatened men that is part of being a woman online. But back then, women were surprisingly scare, especially in the most prominent blogs, to the point where it was a joke how every three months, a male blogger would ponderously wonder why women don’t like blogging.

Turns out women do like blogging! But to get to the equal state we’re in now, we had to set aside stereotypes about what women can or will be capable of. We also had to make targeted appeals to women—which was tremendously helped, like it or not, with woman and feminist-specific blogs and conferences—and bloggers had to be conscientious about including women in their links and in their discourse, at least until it became second nature. This strategy works very well. Now, if anything, blogging is considered something of a woman’s medium. No blog gets parodied more on TV than Jezebel, for instance. Not that I’m worried about the men, who continue to do just fine at blogging and seem, I will say, mostly content (at least on the left) to share the spotlight with women.

I confess, in the early days, the temptation to not participate in all this and instead to enjoy being one of the few women in a sea of men was strong. But I also knew it was bullshit, because I know in my heart of hearts that men are not smarter or better than women, and thus being “one of the boys” was no more an honor than being “one of the random people picked off the street”. So I threw myself into the project of linking women, doing panels on “women in blogging”, promoting women’s work, highlighting smaller blogs written by women, etc. The story is a lot more complex than that, but this post is getting a little long already, so I’ll leave it at that. I’ll just say that in the end, women banding together and helping each other out paid off way more than trying to grab the Token Lady spot; the thrill of being one of the guys can’t hold a candle to the pleasure of living in a world where women actually get respect.

Hall’s behavior reeks of trying to preserve the privileges of the token. It’s not even subtle, since she literally wore a T-shirt three days in a row (gross) to protest Skepchick’s efforts at improving female attendance at conferences. Also, she’s making arguments that are so inconsistent and illogical that if they were coming from, say, an alt med marketing campaign, she’d annihilate them in her writings. This particularly jumped out at me:

I shouldn’t have to say this, but for the record, I have no objection to minorities joining together in solidarity in any way they choose. I have a personal preference to participate as an integral member of the general body of skeptics, rather than meet with a subset of women skeptics. I would be distressed if the skeptical movement were balkanized into ineffectiveness by creating separate meetings for every conceivable minority group. Do we need a conference devoted to elderly transsexual black Hispanic scientists? OK, so that’s ridiculous; but at what point does it become ridiculous? Think about it for a moment. Be fair. Are you biased against small minorities and willing to treat them differently because of their size? In my opinion it’s more productive to address everyone’s special concerns within the skeptical community as a whole. But that’s only my personal opinion. If any minority group, no matter how small, wants to have their own separate meeting, I certainly wouldn’t try to stop them.

Obviously, it’s a disingenuous argument, because she is, by heavily and repeatedly and rather aggressively criticizing them, trying to stop them from having a conference addressing women in secularism. She is objecting to it. She explains her reasons why: She thinks it’s divisive and balkanizing, which is only the case, I’ll point out, if people who prefer the status quo of male dominance throw a fit. (As demonstrated in the liberal blogosphere, when everyone is on board with the “more women” goal, it tends to create more harmony and more friendships.) Which is happening, of course, but no one has yet to make a coherent case for why those who prefer the status quo should automatically get their way and those who prefer more gender equality should retreat upon the first sign that the pro-male dominance group is going to put up a fight. Considering that we’re skeptics, I suggest the alternative of weighing the arguments for and against more gender inclusivity instead, but I suspect the reason that those against are hostile to that strategy is they’re not likely to win in a fair fight. But just, you know, my “personal” opinion.

But despite her framing it as a personal opinion, there is an argument in there, which is that it’s ridiculous and divisive for a group with specific interests to meet together to advance those interests. This has been her argument all along, as Will points out, since she kicked off this defensive spate of blogging by responding to a Facebook promotion of Women in Secularism with this comment:

Efforts like this tend to divide the secular movement. Why can’t we all just get along and cooperate on our mutual goals? I think conferences like this only tend to postpone the day when the sexes will truly be treated equally and no one will pay attention to whether a person has chest bumps or dangly bits.

I would point out that Hall is utterly inconsistent in her belief that people should simply squelch their concerns about doing what’s right to join in solidarity with others for mutual goals. To be consistent, Hall should start criticizing the very existence of skeptic and atheist conferences, insisting that we should instead have general interest “people who want good things to happen” conferences, where we can join with all people everywhere for the goal of “good things happening”. It will turn out, of course, that the vast majority of the speakers at the general “people who want good things to happen” conference will be promoting not just religion, but herbal remedies and superstitions and belief in ghosts, because these are all popular beliefs—far more popular than atheism and skepticism. But Hall should squelch her concerns about irrational thinking for the good of the group. After all, we all want good things to happen. Pointing out that the rational point of view is being wedged out and that might, in the long run, actually prevent good things from happening is needlessly divisive and balkanizing.

For some reason I don’t think Hall will be interested in my suggestion that she apply her personal preferences and principles consistently, however. Which again suggests that what is going on here is less an evidence-based concern about the dangers of more aggressive recruitment of women, and instead a result of Hall having a prejudice that she is reluctant to abandon, despite her stated identity as a skeptic. Not that I’m mad at her (except for the horrible T-shirt bullying thing, which is weird). As all good skeptics know, we all have our blind spots and logical fallacies. But as good skeptics, we really should try to overcome them.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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