Sisterhood of the Oppressed – A Critique

Paula Kirby is a writer whose work I have never read who, this weekend, posted an essay called “Sisterhood of the Oppressed” criticizing (no, wait, go on… guess) the segment of the atheist/skeptic movement who think that harassment is bad and we ought to do something about it. While this should be a pretty non-controversial point, apparently it is not and the internet has exploded in a firestorm of rage over the last few weeks. I’m not familiar with Kirby’s work at all, so without any context other than what she wrote in her essay, here we go:

(Incidentally, if you’re new to this discussion, Jason Thibeault over at Lousy Canuck has a decent timeline of what’s been going on in this conversation in case you need a little bit of background.)

We start off with a defense of the term “feminazi”. Now I don’t really have a problem with namecalling when you’re trying to make an emotional appeal. I don’t have an issue with terms like “anti-choice” or “idiot” when you’re just trying to get in a quick jab at the person you’re arguing with. But when it comes to “nazi”, can’t we at least agree that that’s a little extreme? You don’t win argument points by pointing wildly at something bad and saying “YOU’RE JUST LIKE THEM!” (complete with caps-lock). Nazis killed millions of people in an attempt to exterminate entire segments of the human population. Kirby is arguing against a group of people whose “crimes” are literally things like saying “Guys, don’t do that“, or that sexual harassment is a thing that happens sometimes. The thing about analogies is that they should scale properly. Comparing people saying words to other people killing millions is more than a little bit out-of-sync. On top of which, 99% of the time that you compare your opponent to Nazis, you’ve already lost the argument: it’s just not a point that people tend to respect.

But! (says Kirby) we’re not comparing them to actual Nazis, but rather to a general notion of Nazisim “used to simply mean ‘extremist’ or ‘obsessive'”. While this is still a stupid rhetorical point, let’s look at what Kirby considers totalitarian”

Hysterical, bullying overreaction to dissent? Attempting to make it so unpleasant for anyone who dares to oppose them that others are deterred from trying it? Utter conviction that their own ideology is absolutely right and just, and that no questioning of it can therefore ever be permitted?

So, hyperbole aside, we’re talking basically about conviction towards an ideology that you feel compelled to defend. You know, like the Republicanazis and the Democranazis. The Christinazis and the Athenazis. Don’t forget about the GLBTN with their totalitarian gay rights agenda. Look, if that’s your definition of a “Nazi” extremist is someone who has and defends an ideology, then you’re going to get caught in your own trap. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe the “hysterical, bullying overreaction to dissent” really is over-the-top enough to warrant the label. So with (what I imagine would have to be) a world full of examples of how the feminazis are suppressing dissent, surely Kirby can find us three REALLY good examples.

Let’s not forget the abuses of speakers’ “privilege” at certain conferences, where audience members holding “the wrong attitudes” have been picked on by the speaker from the platform.

For those not aware, this a reference to Rebecca Watson giving a talk at the 2011 CFI Leadership Conference regarding the “elevator incident” where she mentions a particular comment about the incident:

So apparently “publicly disagreeing with someone” is suppressing dissent. There’s a valid argument to be made that what Watson did was bad form in that it wasn’t the proper forum to call someone out over a disagreement by placing her next to comments advocating that Watson be slapped or raped. But this is a far cry from “silencing dissent”. Disagreement with people happens, and sometimes people are going to be hurt by it. But there’s a difference between “here’s what a person said and I disagree with them and here’s why” and over a year’s worth of telling someone that you’re going to rape them, or that they’re too ugly to rape, and using the name “Rebecca Twatson” as though you think you’re being clever when really it’s impossible to be clever by repeating the same insult for OVER A GODDAMNED YEAR.

Saturday saw someone on Twitter being harassed by one of the Sisterhood for having had the temerity to simply follow the decidedly unapproved @AngrySkepchick. Not even your “Follow” lists are now safe from the prying eyes of the Sisters, and be sure you will be subject to interrogation if your choices appear to deviate from the required standard!

This second example, I actually hadn’t heard about and it took some Google digging to figure out. I guess on Saturday, Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) of Skepchick fame challenged one of the speakers at the upcoming TAM 2012, Sharon Hill, over the fact that she was following a twitter account called @AngrySkepchick that was mocking Rebecca Watson (people’s hatred of whom always seems to enter into these things…). As a public figure, her tacit endorsement of an insult campaign versus Watson could be viewed as a inappropriate, and Roth called her on it by saying that she would no longer follow Hill on Twitter. At its core, that’s pretty much it: A woman on Twitter unfollowed another woman on Twitter over something she felt was inappropriate… Ergo, FEMINAZI SILENCING OF DISCUSSION AND OPPRESSION OF DISAGREEMENT!

As for Kirby’s third example of silencing dissent:

the blogs, of course.

Specific as that is, I’m not really sure what to say to it. Maybe she’s talking about comment policies? I’m not really sure. So these are (one assumes) the best examples of how radical feminists are oppressing discourse on issues: publicly addressing comments and unfollowing people on Twitter. And blogs.

But fine, let’s assume that they are radically suppressing the voices of those who disagree with them. Let’s look at the point that’s actually being disagreed upon:

  • Some women at conferences feel harassed.
  • Women who feel harassed at conferences are less likely to go.
  • Such women have said that instituting an anti-harassment policy would make them feel more comfortable.
  • An anti-harassment policy would not negatively affect the experience of anyone who wasn’t harassing women.
  • Therefore, institute a fucking harassment policy.

Honestly, this battle is pretty much won. American Atheists, Dragon*Con, CFI, SkepchickCON, Skepticon, SSA Con and more all have instituted harassment policies. Even TAM, at the centre of all the controversy, had a harassment policy last year, which one assumes will be carried over seeing as how last year’s TAM was the largest turnout of women they’ve ever had (ie: anti-harassment policies get more women to come).

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Some people want a harassment policy and feel don’t comfortable coming without one. Anyone who doesn’t care won’t be affected and anyone who actively opposes a harassment policy should think long and hard about what exactly their reasons are for opposing it. Do you think it’s because such policies are anti-sex? Then you should check out the anti-harassment policy of a goddamned sex-based conference: OpenSF.

This should be such a non-controversial point that anyone defending it has the right to treat their opponents like idiots. Harassment bad. Don’t do it.

Kirby, however, would rather continue comparing feminists to Nazis.

Let’s consider 1930s Germany for a moment. How did the Nazis gain popular support? By exploiting a sense of grievance post-Versailles, by continually telling the German people they’d been treated abominably, had their noses ground in the dust, been unfairly penalized, that they were the victims of an international, Jew-led conspiracy, that they needed to rise from the ashes and gain their revenge and their proper, god-ordained place in the world.


Change the terminology a little and you have the poor, oppressed, victimized, unfairly ignored women being urged to rise up against the evil conspiracy of those men, women-haters, sister-shamers and gender-traitors who are responsible for all their woes.

Except that there was no Jew-led conspiracy out to keep the German people down; whereas the effects of misogyny can be felt by how any woman who dares speak up against it gets threats of rape and violence. Even if the two situations were comparable, Nazis went on to kill millions of people and the feminists are simply saying “hey guys, don’t harass women”.

Speaking of harassment, did you know that it’s not actually a problem?

Absolutely anyone can find themselves being sexually propositioned at any conference at all if they hang out in the bar long enough, and late enough at night. (snip)  For those who engage in the propositioning and those who respond positively to it (and many do), it is presumably one of the fun bits of life. I simply do not accept that any reasonably mature, rational adult does not know exactly how to avoid getting into this kind of situation if he or she would prefer not to, or how to deal with it if it occurs.

Nobody other than the concocted strawmen in the heads of those who oppose the anti-harassment policies actually has a problem with this situation, in principle. Some people like to have sex at conferences. That’s great! They should go out and have a blast. But some people like to go to bars and hang out, and they should be able to enjoy themselves too. The point is, don’t make sex the primary thing. If you’re having a conversation with someone and one thing leads to another, then you’ve lucked out. But if you’re just having a good conversation and it doesn’t lead anywhere physical? Guess what, you still lucked out! You got to talk to some cool people and maybe make a few new friends. Heaven forbid that you not get laid after all your hard work of making conversation with people. Find yourself in a conversation with someone who you don’t think wants to sex you up? You’re free to leave and talk to someone with more similar intentions. If the people who want sex can get it, and the people who just want to hang out can do that EVERYBODY WINS. All you have to do is not start out your conversations with “Want to go back to my room?” and a wink.

I am talking about normal, non-violent situations in which no assault takes place.

Well you know what? Some of us are. Because in addition to the issue of constant but non-violent string of sexual propositions from certain attendees there are other issues of women being groped, or stalked or possibly having upskirt photos taken of them that need to be dealt with. An anti-harassment policy does this too. It gives conference staff the explicit ability to throw people out harassing women when they’re doing things as extreme as this. It’s not an admission that this sort of thing happens all the time. It doesn’t. But it also doesn’t have to in order to have a negative effect. We don’t want to hear that sexual harassment never happens at conferences, because that’s probably not true. We want to hear if  it happens what does the conference plan to do about it.

Kirby then attempts to address the criticism that there aren’t enough female speakers at conferences by spending a few pages talking about how men don’t keep women from speaking out, women just naturally don’t speak out. She does this by talking about her time organizing events or meetings for business people, and how the women would always stay silent.

My background is in business. I have lost count of the number of times I have been present at meetings when the women said nothing and left it all to the men. I’ve been guilty of it myself, many a time. Was it because the men weren’t willing to listen to the women? I don’t think it was. Did the men dismiss our comments if we made them? No, they didn’t. Did they try to stop us making them? No, they didn’t do that either. Were the women lacking in ideas? No, of course not. We just didn’t speak up. Crucially, many of us didn’t speak up, even when openly invited to do so.

It’s their own fault, dammit!

Let’s put aside the notion that maybe, just maybe, women stay silent because often when the speak up about an issue, they’re met with a backlash that is either because of their gender or focused on their gender. For a recent example of this, check out the story of Anita Sarkesian who started a project critiquing the depiction of women in video games. Before she even started working on the project (having merely announced it) she was called a bitch, whore, slut, feminazi (of course) and cunt, told to get back in the kitchen, make a sandwich and show her tits.

Let’s put aside the notion that this is not an uncommon occurrence.

Kirby is trying to make the argument that women don’t actually have an interest in speaking up and presenting at conferences. I’ll admit, I don’t know much about the business world. Maybe this is true there (I doubt it), but the atheists and skeptic movement is a much different place, and there’s no shortage of women available to speak at conferences. This list includes:

  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • Ophelia Benson
  • Susan Jacoby
  • Jen McCreight
  • Taslima Nasrin
  • Christina Radd
  • Natalie Reed
  • Greta Christina
  • Maryam Namazie
  • Sikivu Hutchinson
  • Amanda Marcotte
  • Rebecca Watson
  • Tracie Harris
  • Jen Peeples
  • Ashley Paramore
  • Julia Sweeney
  • Jessica Ahlquist
  • and Paula Kirby, herself!

Not to mention the Women In Secularism conference which took place a couple months ago, which only goes to show just how many great female speakers are out there who could be invited to speak conferences. Since this issue has started coming up, conferences have started focusing on exactly this, with a greater and greater percentage of female speakers (and, consequently, attendees). But Kirby somehow views it as ironic that these women would have a place to speak, rather than giving it up to “new names” or “fresh new women secularists” but this ignores a huge aspect of conferences: the networking. It is about getting new faces to come out to conferences, and whether or not you’re up on stage, you’re now involved with the movement just by being there. And when you reach out to women (by, for example, instituting the anti-harassment policies they ask for) you (surprise!) get more women to attend. TAM, of all places, were the ones who proved this last year.

So if you say that women being invited to be speakers means there’s not a problem, you’re an idiot. It simply means that we’re winning.

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  • Justin Vacula  On July 3, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    “This second example, I actually hadn’t heard about and it took some Google digging to figure out. I guess on Saturday, Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) of Skepchick fame challenged one of the speakers at the upcoming TAM 2012, Sharon Hill, over the fact that she was following a twitter account called @AngrySkepchick that was mocking Rebecca Watson (people’s hatred of whom always seems to enter into these things…). As a public figure, her tacit endorsement of an insult campaign versus Watson could be viewed as a inappropriate, and Roth called her on it by saying that she would no longer follow Hill on Twitter.”

    Not only was that the case, but, from Surly Amy’s words:

  • mofa  On January 4, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    Completely slanted bias article…I must be one of hundreds who have commented the same. This article is quite old now so I hope you have changed your views slightly since….oh …and also…Lousy Canuck is an embassassment (esp. of late) with the feud with Justin Griffith. Is he (Lousy) a mate of yours?

    • omniz  On January 6, 2013 at 1:46 am

      Pretty sure you can see that I don’t have hundreds of comments on the post. For the record, have not changed my views on whether it’s okay to bash women as being Nazis for not wanting to be harassed. You should consider why you think it is.


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