So We’re Comin’ Out of the Kitchen*

Fair warning: this post isn’t going to be one of my usual crime fiction posts. If you were hoping for my regular dronings about the genre, my apologies. Please come back tomorrow.

Still here? Thanks. As this is posted, it’s International Women’s Day. One question many people have is: is such a day still relevant? Haven’t women achieved equality? The answer (in case you haven’t been following the news…) is no. Even in cosmopolitan, developed places, it’s still clear that we have a lot of work to do. I’ll just give one example. In a recent large study, it was shown that, by the age of six – 6! – many young girls already believe that they are not as smart as boys.

The issues here are complex and multilayered, and I won’t pretend to touch on all of them. But, speaking as a wordsmith with a background in language, I do have a few things to say about language.

That’s right, language. Why is it that, after so much time, we still have such a long way to go when it comes to real equality for women? Part of the answer is arguably that we learn our attitudes very early in life, and that we learn them in part through language. The words we use, and the way we use them, transmit our culture, and our (grand)children adopt that culture. That’s how cultures endure.

The problem is that our language can help to perpetuate a lot of inequity. Now, before you start thinking that I’m talking of what a lot of people call ‘political correctness,’ I’m really not. It goes much, much deeper than saying something in a certain way so as not to offend. It’s what our choice of words says about our underlying beliefs, and how those beliefs are perpetuated. And it happens even if we don’t consciously intend it.

There are many, many things that we can do to work together for a more equitable society. I won’t mention them all; there are too many. Let’s just focus on language, and I’ll give you an idea (I hope) of what I mean.

Gentlemen…

A word in your ear, please. Most of the men I know are not consciously sexist. Certainly, they’re not misogynists. In fact, most of the men of my acquaintance are eager to support equity for women. But our culture has made certain things ‘all right,’ and a lot of men – even those who see women as equal partners – perpetuate that culture without being aware of it. Here are just a few examples.

If you share your life with a female partner, and you cook a meal, or do laundry, or dust, or buy food, you are not ‘helping.’ You are doing part of your share. To say that you’re ‘helping mum,’ implies that it’s her job to cook, clean, mind the children, well, you get the idea. I know, it’s hard to get past that. But think about the messages that you send when you say you’re ‘helping.’

And, while I have your attention, there are a lot of other ways in which you can be allies to the women in your lives. For instance, you can call out your fellow men when they demean women. There’s a difference between a funny, raunchy, ‘locker room’ joke, and a joke or comment that degrades women. When you hear the latter, that’s the time to do something about it. The same goes for hearing your fellow men refer to women (or each other) using certain words. Yes, it might make for some awkwardness. That part’s difficult. I know it’s harder to do than to write. But when people aren’t called out, it all continues to be all right. And it’s not. And do you really want a world where your (grand)daughters are demeaned and made to feel less because they are female? Where your (grand)sons are responsible for denigrating women?

And please pay attention to things your (grand)sons and their friends might say. Remember, they are looking to you to show them how a man behaves. Allowing degrading remarks (e.g. ‘Man up!’ ‘You run like a girl!’), or making them, simply perpetuates the culture that permits them.

Ladies…

You are not off the hook here. How do you think girls come to believe that it’s all right to body-shame, to ‘slut-shame,’ or to otherwise bully each other? They learn it from what they hear and see.

Every time you try to laugh off a misogynistic remark, even if you later express resentment, you are showing your (grand)daughters that they should accept such treatment. When you comment on, say, a female legislator’s clothes and hair, rather than her policies, you are teaching your (grand)daughters that women’s appearances are more important than their ideas. That silences those women who could be role models. When you use certain words (you know the ones I mean!) to describe people you don’t like, you are teaching your (grand)daughters that only one part of their anatomy is of interest, and even that is somehow ‘wrong.’

Even off-hand remarks about famous people (e.g. ‘She’s gotten so fat!’ ‘She looks like a tramp in that dress,’ etc..) send messages to young people. And certainly remarks about people you know send those messages.

Remember: your (grand)daughters look to you as role models. What you say about them and yourself carries weight. What you say in their presence, even if it’s about others, carries weight, too.

Does that mean that we need to censor every word? No. I doubt if we could. Besides, as I say, this isn’t about political correctness. It’s about how we transmit culture through words, and what that teaches our children about men and women.

We can make a difference just in our own lives, and that can have a powerful impact in the future. Have conversations with your (grand)children about what words really mean. Call it out when you hear language that objectifies women or demeans them. Call yourself out when you catch yourself saying something that demeans women (that’s a great way to teach children to deal with their own mistakes). Those little choices that we make all of the time, often without being aware of it, can have much more influence than we know.

And, after all, think of the alternative. What if there were a world where women simply…weren’t?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eurythmics’ Sisters Are Doin’ it For Themselves. I invite you to listen to the duet from the Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox and the one and only Aretha Franklin.

39 Comments

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39 responses to “So We’re Comin’ Out of the Kitchen*

  1. Hear, hear! The children will always watch how we behave as well as what we tell them is right. If the two are in contradiction, they will always opt for the behaviour rather than the advice.

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. And you’re right; they always will. And children are much, much more perceptive than a lot of people think they are. They catch nuances, ‘side comments,’ and so on that teach them things we aren’t aware of…until we think about it.

  2. So very true Margot and some great reminders for us all in there …

    • Thanks, D.S. – I’d love to see the day come when those reminders aren’t necessary. But until then…

      • So would I! I often have to check myself and funnily enough my husband does say he’s ‘helping’ but I’m not sure he means it in the way it’s said. Language has an interesting way of working sometimes.

        • It really does, D.S. And I know what you mean about having to catch oneself. I’ve had to do that, too. I think progress is just an evolutionary process that takes time.

  3. (Heaves another sigh) Yup. I keep checking the calendar to see if it’s still 1972. Did we ever think we’d still have to be saying these things in 2017? (or, for that matter, in 1997?)

    • That’s exactly it, Susan. We really do have to keep working at this. Our society has made progress, and I could cite plenty of examples. But all it takes is a quick glance at news headlines to see that we still have an awfully long way to go. So, yes, we have to keep saying these things and we have to refuse to sit down and be quiet.

  4. Col

    Plenty to contemplate while I’m driving home to my little lady! (My tongue is firmly in cheek!) Great post, Margot

  5. I have to admit it amazes me constantly to see women praising contemporary books that to me are full of negative images of women at best, or outright misogyny at worst. I guess they’re just so used to it, it almost goes unnoticed. But it still surprises me that when I comment on an author’s sexism or misogyny (sometimes female authors, even) other women react with surprise or defend them. And sadly the current fightback seems to be to have unrealistic female superhero-type characters, who are “better than men”. After nearly fifty years of hoping that one day it would be considered just fine for women to be women, without the invidious comparison of whether we’re ‘better’ ‘worse’ ‘weaker’ ‘stronger’ than men, I’ve about given up. Cats are better than either…. 😉

    I laughed at your comments about men ‘helping’ though. My Dad used to cook his famous omelettes once a year, and we were all expected to ooh and aah for days afterwards – my poor mother, who cooked the other 364 days of the year (after having come home from her full-time job), must have secretly wanted to hit him over the head with the omelette pan, I’m sure… 😉

    • Col

      I milk that one, once a year on Mother’s Day! It’s worth knowing I’m not the only one!

    • 😆 I’m sure she must have, FictionFan! My father did that sort of thing, too. On to your more serious point, I wonder, too, that so many sexist images of women and messages about women are still plainly there in crime fiction (and other fiction). As you say, sometimes that’s even from other women. And you’re right: the point isn’t for women to be superheros who have no faults, make no mistakes and so on. There’s nothing wrong with being a sleuth, or an attorney, or a dentist, or a teacher, or…. who happens to be a woman. I like it best when major characters are human beings. And I like it best when those who are female don’t perpetuate some really dangerous stereotypes.

  6. Proof positive why International Women’s Day still exists is woven into your words, which reflect my thoughts exactly. Such well thought out examples.
    Having traveled a fair amount, I can attest that when we begin to think we have conquered true equality, there are dozens of countries who will need ‘our’ help. Canada has just pledged to double the amount of money for Sexual health and reproductive rights (education etc), around the world – to a massive 650M more over 3 years. I imagine there are many who are complaining loudly on that amount of money going out of the country, but JT has it right. Grass roots pave the world.
    One day it may not need to be anything but a reminder of how very far women have come.

    • I hope you’re right, Lesley. And I applaud Canada’s decision, and JT’s point of view. Real change – real progress – will mean we all have to work together, and see the world as the community that it is. And that means exactly the sort of commitment you mention. I’m glad you enjoyed this post, and thank you for the kind words.

  7. An excellent thoughtful post Margot, and one we can all get behind. That’s most certainly what I want for my children (a boy and a girl!) and my potential future grandchildren. Well said.

  8. mudpuddle

    i don’t talk to people much; Ms. M and i are sort of outliers… but we each have our own chores and we help each other when needed: no “sexism” involved, as we couldn’t live here if we didn’t both toe the line… anyway, we support IWD 100%; tx for the reminder…

    • I’m glad you do, Mudpuddle. And the fact is, what you and Mrs. M. have is exactly the sort of partnership I had mind. Everyone has a share of the chores to do, if they’re all to get done.

  9. What a wonderful post, Margot and you covered the topic in a way that most people don’t think about. I truly think I live with a man who sees me and all women as equals; we both resist chores equally. But I work in a male-dominated area and I see sexism just about everywhere else, so I don’t think things are that much better. Opportunities are improved, but certainly not equal. I appreciated that you chose to speak out about this.

    • Thanks very much, Tracy. I’m glad you thought the post was good. Like you, I’m with a man who really does believe that women and men are equal (I had to chuckle at your comment about the chores!). But that doesn’t mean that sexism is gone, as you point out. It’s in a lot of places, and I think a lot of work will need to be done before we really evolve on that matter.

  10. Well said, Margot. Wonderful post and oh, so true.

  11. Well said, Margot. And Happy International Women’s Day to you.

  12. What a considered post Margot and it has made me ponder the language – Having married a man who used exactly the type of language you call out about household chores and now living with another, who wouldn’t dream of doing so I notice far more how often men at work or those I meet socially say these things. When you are bombarded daily it becomes less apparent which is why Woman’s Day is needed.

    • Thanks, Cleo. And that’s exactly the sort of thing I had mind with this post. You put it brilliantly, too. When we are bombarded daily with certain messages, that’s what starts to feel like ‘normal,’ even if it isn’t all right. And as your own experience shows, it has an impact even on people who aren’t consciously sexist.

  13. kathy d

    Well, what kind of an example is being set here when the Misogynist-in-chief has said the most offensive things about women? How can children (and adults) be expected to say and do the right things when his behavior and language was acceptable to tens of millions of men and women who voted for him? How could any women vote for him? How can any woman “look past” his misogyny? I could not believe the numbers of women who voted for him, those who said “it’s just locker-room talk,” or “that’s just how men talk.” But women spoke publicly about his verbal abuse of them or his walking into their dressing rooms at pageants unannounced.
    I just don’t get it.
    I think your post is very good and what you suggest of women and men should be the norm.
    But misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and xenophobia are being normalized at this very moment from the top. (Not to mention the posting by Marines of photos of women without their permission. Will anything really happen to them? It’s also normalized behavior.)
    Also, to me, being so-called politically correct simply means being respectful to people and following the Golden Rule on how one treats people, as one wants to be treated. It’s very simple.

    • You make a well-taken point, Kathy, that change comes most easily when it’s supported from the top, as it were. And your examples show that we still have a long way to go to achieve equity for everyone. Part the process, I think, is looking out our own words and actions, and considering what they say about us, and what messages they send to our children.

  14. janmorrison12

    Yay Margot! Love this post, but you knew I would. I spent Womens’ Day working (of course) but I go to the Reserve School on Wednesdays and I had a group of five 11 year old girls at one point. I got them talking about their women role models (after some urging). Here they are – Tina Turner, Michelle Obama, Selena Quintanilla, Karen Kain, and Celine Dion. Three singers, one activist, and a ballerina. Not a bad crowd. We did get to talk about sexism and racism.

    • So glad to hear you had such a productive visit, Jan! And I really like those role models, too. I’ll bet you’re a role model, yourself, to those young ladies. And, honestly, that’s how we start to make change: one interaction, one positive image, etc… at a time. And thanks for the kind words. I’m really glad you thought the post was good.

  15. I always knew I was smarter than the boys in grade school, so I suspect such a horrible statistic as the one you quoted must be blamed on the parents of young girls. My dad was my motivator even more than my mom, and he’s the one who talked me out of journalism and into a world of math, accounting, business law, and statistics. And much later, he guided my oldest son away from architecture and toward math and computer science. Thanks, Dad!!

    • I’m very happy for you, Pat, that you had a father who saw his daughter’s real talents and interests and supported them. Children really need that as they decide what they think of themselves, who they are, and what they’ll set as goals. Thanks for sharing your story.

  16. kathy d

    My parents didn’t push me in any direction. They went with what my sister and I were interested in doing.
    Well, I do not envy all of the parents who have to explain why NOT to follow the examples of those in the Washington political scene, how not to be sexist and racist and xenophobic, how to treat people with respect, how not to use verbal put-downs, how not to tell anyone to be quiet and sit down (Elizabeth Warren), how to listen and how to cooperate and work with others. A lot of explaining to do all over the country.

    • I think today’s parents really do have a lot of work to do to help raise their children with a sense of equity and justice, Kathy. I’m glad yours raised you that way.

  17. kathy d

    Yes, mine did. And no bigotry in our household, although there had to be some consciousness-raising on gay issues. When my father was older, he lived next door to an older gay male couple on Long Island. They offered to drive him places, get groceries for him, etc. He transformed right away.
    So knowing people is important to all of us.
    Luckily, I live in a very multicultural city so I see people from around the world on the street, in grocery stores and restaurants. My own consciousness is raised all of the time about different cultures and religions, which I love. It’s a benefit of living here, not to mention the culinary benefits, too!

    • You’ve highlighted a really important aspect of making social progress, Kathy. Getting to know different kinds of people de-mystifies them. And that makes them human. And I couldn’t agree with you more about the culinary benefits of living in a multicultural place!

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