Monday, September 17, 2007

The View from 39: Opinionated Women

Last month I turned 39, and about a week later I called a good friend whom I've known since grad school. When we met, she was 22 and I was 26, and she seemed impossibly young, so I remarked with surprise that it was hard to believe that she'd be having her 35 birthday next month.

Maybe she thought I was bringing up her milestone a little early and decided to poke me back, because she replied, "I can't believe you're turning 40!" to which I stammered, "Yeah, in 50 weeks!"

So, like election coverage that spans 18 months, and Christmas catalogs that arrive in the 100 degree heat of August, I am taking an early look at what it means to be 40.

I've decided that reaching 40 is not just a milestone, it's a process, which I am in exploring as The View from 39.

Each decade of life presents new lessons. For me, my twenties were about figuring out who the heck I was--not just as someone's girlfriend, but as ME. My thirties were about adjusting to motherhood and finding my voice. And it looks like my forties will be about developing the courage to keep speaking in the face of criticism and opposition.

My experience blogging for has given me personal perspective to back up the concept that the online world is part of our culture that can be a particularly hostile environment for women, one in which hate speech operates under the cover of free speech. I thought I was prepared to weather criticism, assuming it would be a critique of my logic and arguments. However, I was not prepared for attacks on my motives and character. The comments on CNET haven't been too terrible, but when the Broadsheet blog on reported on one of my CNET posts that raised concerns about the lack of a child safety strategy for "$100 laptop" computers that are already being given out to kids in the developing world, many of the comments left by Broadsheet readers were really nasty, accusing me of being ignorant, racist, classist and paranoid.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a huge element of sexism in these reactions. It still astounds me to see how opinionated women are reigned in by the cultural boundary patrol, over and over again. On CNET, it was interesting to see that when I wrote an irreverently critical review of the iPhone, a reader reacted with this comment,

Oh Please, not her again....Come on Cnet,[sic] are you really so hard up for content you have to publish this dribble [sic] again. Amy has no business writing about, much less owning an iPhone. It's obvious she has absolutely no experience with technology. The iPhone WAS an impulse buy for you, and you should be punished for being such a tool.

Would a male blogger ever be told that he didn't have any business trying out the latest gadget? Does it even matter that I have been an early adopter of almost every new Apple product since buying my first Macintosh in 1986, and have relied on the Mac platform for all my professional activities since then?

I am embarrassed to admit that stupid comments like this do hurt me. I thought I had a thicker skin, but I am not there yet. The criticisms of my child safety concerns gave me more than one sleepless night. I realize that I am experiencing in miniature what many women have to face in a MUCH harsher form on a daily basis. I can only imagine the defenses that Hillary Clinton has had to develop. I have learned to observe my own reactions to her more carefully--whatever criticisms I may have of her as a Senator or potential President, I don't want to fall into the trap of unconsciously adopting sexist arguments against her.

I am doubly embarrassed to admit that I had not paid more, earlier attention to the story about tech blogger Kathy Sierra receiving graphic, anonymous death threats that caused her to cancel professional appearances and ultimately led her to close down her technology blog, Creating Passionate Users. When Computerworld interviewed Sierra to ask her for her perspective about what started the wave of threats, she said:

For some reason [contributors to site] really hate me. I asked one of them why. He said it is because I am just so optimistic. They are about rage, and if you are optimistic and positive you are part of the problem. It spun out of control kind of like a mob or crowd. Meankids was supposed to be a place where they could be as nasty as possible. It was like a feeding frenzy. Once they started down that path of anything goes, they weren't going to stop. Who crosses that line and makes comments like that as an adult? These aren't kids on MySpace. Anyone who is unstable enough to actually say these things, then I don't want to take a chance.

Several years ago I read the book At the Root of this Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst by Carol Lee Flinders, and it has become a source I have returned to again and again. The book is about the connection between feminism and spirituality, and I keep getting drawn back to the chapter "A War Against Women." Flinders begins with the stories of three young women who had been kidnapped and killed, including the well-known case of Polly Klaas, and builds an argument that violence against individual women and children serves a patriarchal social function of collectively controlling all women. It is a difficult argument to accept, and I have spent plenty of time resisting it, yet when I think about an incident such as the threats to Kathy Sierra, or Don Imus' racist, sexist rant, I remember Flinder's description of how the system of control works:

Silently it persists, much like the electronic perimeter fences many dog owners install around their homes. The fence is underground--you never see it--but the dog very quickly gets an idea where it is because her collar gives her a good sharp ping whenever she starts to cross it. --"At the Root of This Longing," p. 219

Our voices are so valuable, so necessary, that we need to develop the courage to keep speaking. We still have a lot of work to do, individually and collectively, to create a society that does not allow women to be controlled by violence. We can start by supporting each other, and hope that by doing so, women like Kathy Sierra will find a safe path back into the public discourse.

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Blogger PunditMom said...

So much food for thought. While I'd like to believe it isn't true, I'm sure there is a kernal of truth in the theory of violence against a few women controls the whole.

2:02 PM  

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