But what if I’m wrong…


Earlier this week, I tweeted:


Timothy’s tweet caught my eye for two reasons. First, because of my recent writing on gender , I’ve been primed to look for everyday sexism. (You know that thing where you notice cars with the same make and model as your new car? Same idea.) Second, because of Yvonne Brille. When Brille died, the first line of her obituary in the New York Times was:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.

Oh… bee tea dubs, Mrs. (her preferred title) Brille:

  • was the only female rocket scientist in the 1940’s
  • received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • invented a propulsion system that helps keep satellites in orbit
  • supported women in math and engineering until her death

Yet, try it on your favorite male scientist or inventor and see how odd it feels. One writer offered up:

It feels awkward to say “this is sexism” when sexism is a big systematic … thing. Some like to say that voting for Hillary because she’s a woman is sexist. (Spoiler: it’s not.) Which means we don’t really have a good handle on what is or isn’t sexist. So while it feels like talking about Nancy Carlsson-Paige as “Matt’s Mom” isn’t *really* sexist, it is a part of a system that defines women by their relationship to men. That mental model is what supported a claim for 100’s of years that women couldn’t own property, or that didn’t need to vote because her husband was voting anyway. In the world of school, dress codes come from that same mental model – girls can’t wear certain clothes because they’re distracting to boys. Let that sit for a bit.

So. I saw it. And I spoke up. A few days later, I noticed a tweet from Timothy in which he included Nancy’s name, instead of Matt’s Mom and I tweeted a quick “thanks.” In a direct message, Timothy shared that the reference was actually a joint idea with Nancy. That part of their podcast is to point out the irony in people asking for Matt Damon’s opinion on education when in fact, it’s his mother who is the education researcher and well-versed in public education. Timothy and I chatted a bit and apparently I wasn’t the first one to raise a flag. Nancy herself did. So did other guests on his podcast.

Is it still an example of everyday sexism? Yes – it frames a highly-qualified, talented woman by her relationship to a man, her son. Is it malicious? No. Was I wrong? I’m going to go with wrong-ish.

Then this morning, I saw this:

As a result of discussions with a variety of people, some of which got a little peevish on my end, especially when I got a hat trick of accounts with white male avatars telling me that “gender is irrelevant.”, I’m undecided if what’s happening here is the same kind of everyday sexism as in the case of Brille or Carlsson-Paige.

So, at this point, these are the claims that I’ve fleshed out:

  1. Yes, it’s sexist because it frames Ms. King’s job against Mr. King’s identity.
  2. No, it’s not sexist because if Mr. King were a Ms., it would still be a conflict for Mr. King to hold a job at a lobbying firm.

I have thoughts on both but am more curious in what others think. The funny thing for me is that in every case, the men who responded focused on the conflict of interest – staying away from the idea of sexism. Two men privately DMed me and mentioned they were hesitant to speak up about sexism in case they were wrong. That to me, speaks to a pattern. But as I shared, I keep seeing Gray Honda Crosstours everywhere I look.

3 thoughts on “But what if I’m wrong…”

  1. Jen- this is an important one- I flinch when I see “wife of” “blank’s mom” even “mrs blank”- do they not have first names?
    But then I think, were these women referred to in this way because the man in the situation has huge name recognition?
    But then I think, would they do that with men who are connected to famous women? I can’t think of any- Rosa Park’s husband? Ginsburg’s husband? Maybe I’m not looking for the right car…
    I think this sexism is so systematic that many don’t see it. I might be wrong, but I vote that the Ravitch example is sexism…

  2. I’d think it was weird if my wife introduced herself as, “I’m Doug’s wife,” before saying anything else about herself. She’d at least give her name. If the person is important enough to write an entire article about the person is important enough to have a first name. And “the person” in too many of these case is a woman who’d identity is being connected to a man. Does it give context for why we should care? Maybe. I mean, if you don’t know that Matt Damon’s mom is an educator you’re less likely to click on the link. But that falls on the editor to write a good headline instead of a lazy, name-drop headline. Might as well write, “You’ll Never Guess Who Has An Opinion On [BLANK]!” At least that doesn’t have any identifiers.
    What I’m saying is Ravitch should know better.

  3. Really enjoyed this article. A few things popped into my head while reading it.

    -To say someone’s race/gender doesn’t matter irks me. Of course it matters. This sense of false, pseudo-neutrality is really just an outgrowth of a patriarchal and racist system that blinds dominant groups to their own privilege. As a white male, pretty much everything around me is run by people who look like me. Having a monopoly on cultural power makes it easy for people like me to make statements like “Voting for someone because she’s a woman is sexist.”

    -On the notion of introducing/referring to women as X’s wife reminds me of difference. When I get to be the norm, everything else that’s not me becomes defined mainly in its opposition to and deviation from me. This sort of thinking robs humans of their right to define and articulate themselves on their own terms.

    I appreciate the strength of your writing and your rapacious commitment to seeking out perspective.

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