0

Sexism by anti-sexist activists

Change doesn’t come easily.

7 March is International Women’s Day, activism against gender inequity is experiencing a ‘third wave’, supported by writers, scholars and civic organisations alike – and yet, old habits are hard to shake off, even by these feminists themselves. Old habits, such as belittling women by the way they are named.

Carpenter around 1875 (from Wikimedia Commons).

As I was reading a biography of the activist Edward Carpenter, written by eminent women’s historian Sheila Rowbotham, it struck me that she referred to the women in Carpenter’s life by their first names, while the men were called by their family names. (This is especially clear in the chapter ‘Love and Loss’.) For an online example, see Rowbotham’s earlier publication Hidden from History. 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It.

In European culture, the use of first names traditionally implies intimacy, but also low status and a form of infantility or immaturity. First names are used for children, servants, nurses: Katie; Maud; Mary. Second names, on the other hand, have for a long time been reserved for people of power and authority, such as (male) politicians, authors, and teachers in secondary or higher education: Gladstone; Byron; Snyder.

(For a bitter laugh: google-image search ‘professor’ and then ‘teacher’.)

A romanticising painting of the Shelleys: William Powell Frith (1819-1909), ‘The Lover’s Seat: Shelley and Mary Godwin in Old St Pancras Churchyard’.

The distinction becomes abundantly clear in English literary history with the Shelleys, who were both famous writers. In most narratives about the Shelleys, Percy is ‘Shelley’ while Mary is ‘Mary’. It leads to such statements as ‘In mid-1816, Shelley and Mary made a second trip to Switzerland.’ (This one from Wikipedia, but exemplary of much academic writing as well.)

Another example, about contemporary writers: I use an appointment diary published by an international human-rights organisation, which contains poetry by political dissidents. Two Soviet poets from the 1980s are quoted: Irina Ratushinskaya and Nizametdin Akhmetov. She is ‘Irina’. He is ‘Akhmetov’.

Ratushinskaya, photographed by Mikhail Evstafiev. CC BY-SA 2.5.

Some women seem to be especially prone to being named in a way that places them at the bottom of the pecking order: these are immigrant women and women who have received less formal education.

Not too long ago, I was at a university conference about some of the work scholars in Britain are doing with local communities. Part of the aim was to show that such projects are a two-way street involving true collaboration between academics and people with other kinds of knowledge: knowledge from experience, or from family stories, for instance.

Unfortunately, these good intentions did not translate itself into the naming practices adopted by the (academic) presenters. The non-academic participants, mostly female and immigrant, were referred to by their first names, while the mostly indigenous/white scholars (also women in majority, in this case) were referred to by their family names.

Even scholars who make it their task to challenge racism and sexism have been immersed in a racist and sexist culture from a young age, and clearly even they find it difficult to shake of its influences.

No doubt I have been guilty of the same unfair practice over the course of my life. But once we start to notice how often it occurs, we can begin to be more careful about what we call people.

Michelle? Or Obama? (official White House portrait by Joyce N. Boghosian, 2009, from commons.wikimedia.org)

N.B. When I tried to locate the original source of this photo, the following message appeared on my screen:

Thank you for your interest in this subject. Stay tuned as we continue to update whitehouse.gov.

Sheila Rowbotham’s otherwise excellent biography is called Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (Verso, 2009).