Breaking: Facebook promises action on gender-based hate speech.

facebook-like-iconHuh! Seven days after the launch of the #FBrape campaign, Facebook has responded in just about the best possible way. From the company’s statement:

Many different groups which have historically faced discrimination in society, including representatives from the Jewish, Muslim, and LGBT communities, have reached out to us in the past to help us understand the threatening nature of content, and we are grateful for the thoughtful and constructive feedback we have received. 

…In recent days, it has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate…. We need to do better – and we will.

The statement then lists a series of concrete steps, “that we will begin rolling out immediately” — these include:

  • a review of Facebook community standards and an update to its hate speech guidelines
  • updated training for teams responsible for reviewing “hateful speech or harmful content”
  • increased accountability and transparency for creators of questionable content
  • establishing “more formal and direct lines of communications with representatives of groups working in this area, including women’s groups,” and other outside resources, such as the Anti-Defamation League’s Anti-Cyberhate working group, legal experts, “and other groups that have historically faced discrimination.”
  • undertaking “research on the effect of online hate speech on the online experiences of members of groups that have historically faced discrimination in society, and to evaluate progress on our collective objectives.”

This is all very, very good news indeed, and as someone who’s advocated around a lot of painful issues in the course of her life, I almost don’t know what to do with it. You mean – people can see reason? Within a reasonable amount of time? Really?

And it’s all thanks to the folks at the Everyday Sexism ProjectWomen Action and Media, and activist Soraya Chemaly – from their statement about the day’s events:

Facebook has admirably done more than most other companies to address this topic in regards to content policy.

…“It is because Facebook has committed to having policies to address these issues that we felt it was necessary to take these actions and press for that commitment to fully recognize how the real world safety gap experienced by women globally is dynamically related to our online lives,” explains Soraya Chemaly.

“We have been inspired and moved beyond expression by the outpouring of energy, creativity and support for this campaign from communities, companies and individuals around the world. It is a testament to the strength of public feeling behind these issues.” says Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project.

Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of Women Action and the Media (WAM!), said: “We are reaching an international tipping point in attitudes towards rape and violence against women. We hope that this effort stands as a testament to the power of collaborative action.”

We are hopeful that this moment will mark an historic transition in relation to media and women’s rights in which Facebook is acknowledged as a leader in fostering safer, genuinely inclusive online communities, setting industry precedents for others to follow.We look forward to collaborating with these communities on actions both big and small until we live in a world that’s safe and just for women and girls, and for everyone.

Now, of course, Facebook still has to deliver on all these fine promises – but you know what? Rape culture and domestic violence apologists are EVERYwhere. What we don’t have everywhere are efforts to combat those things. Facebook is to be commended for this swift and solid response, and its willingness to be in dialogue with the very people who called it on the carpet. This is a very powerful, very hopeful thing.

And I have to say: I’ve been active around the issue of sexual assault since the mid-80s, and I have seen huge cultural shifts in just the past few years. Today’s outcome would have been completely inconceivable even just five years ago, I think. It’s utterly remarkable to me – in fact, I think I’m in a little bit of shock.

But it’s the good kind of shock! So thanks Facebook! And thank you very much to all the folks who read this blog and spread the word. We are a part of something that made real change for good. Give yourself a high-five for me, ok? : ) THANK YOU!

Why isn’t it hate speech if it’s about women?

Facebook-Unlike

PLEASE SEE VERY IMPORTANT UPDATE, HERE.

I am famously Not On Facebook (well, “famously” among you folks, anyway), but not being on Facebook doesn’t mean that I’m entirely unaware of the phenomenon. And it strikes me that, much like Twitter, there are probably nearly as many “Facebooks” as there are users, all the various different little cultures that have been created and propagated on that platform, most users largely unaware of most of the other cultures that exist right along beside them (kind of like, you know: in the Real World).

Which is why I’ll bet most Facebook users have no idea how much vile, violent anti-woman hate speech is posted there daily, under the guise of free speech and/or “humor.”

This week, Soraya Chemaly, Jaclyn Friedman and Laura Bates posted an open letter to Facebook on HuffPo that reads in part:

We are calling on Facebook users to contact advertisers whose ads on Facebook appear next to content that targets women for violence, to ask these companies to withdraw from advertising on Facebook until you take the above actions to ban gender-based hate speech on your site.

Specifically, we are referring to groups, pages and images that explicitly condone or encourage rape or domestic violence or suggest that they are something to laugh or boast about. Pages currently appearing on Facebook include Fly Kicking Sluts in the Uterus, Kicking your Girlfriend in the Fanny because she won’t make you a Sandwich, Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs, Raping your Girlfriend and many, many more. Images appearing on Facebook include photographs of women beaten, bruised, tied up, drugged, and bleeding, with captions such as “This bitch didn’t know when to shut up” and “Next time don’t get pregnant.”

These pages and images are approved by your moderators, while you regularly remove content such as pictures of women breastfeeding, women post-mastectomy and artistic representations of women’s bodies. In addition, women’s political speech, involving the use of their bodies in non-sexualized ways for protest, is regularly banned as pornographic, while pornographic content – prohibited by your own guidelines – remains. It appears that Facebook considers violence against women to be less offensive than non-violent images of women’s bodies, and that the only acceptable representation of women’s nudity are those in which women appear as sex objects or the victims of abuse. Your common practice of allowing this content by appending a [humor] disclaimer to said content literally treats violence targeting women as a joke.

For me, reading about it wasn’t enough to really jolt me — what jolted me was seeing pictures.

I won’t post any here, because they’re truly disturbing, but if you’d like to see what Chemaly, Friedman and Bates are talking about, you can click here, herehere, or here.

The first example is the one that shocked me into taking action, and after having a dispassionate exchange about Facebook ad policies with me, it was the second one that inspired my Twitter friend and J Street’s new-media associate, Ben Silverstein, to make this happen:

What these posts are, pure and simple, is hate speech. We don’t often call open misogyny hate speech, but that’s what it is. If it’s your idea of a joke to meme-ify a picture of a woman cringing in fear with the words “Women deserve equal rights… and lefts” (as can be seen here), then you are (to quote Facebook itself) “attacking a person based on… gender.” Indeed, you’re attacking half of humanity. That is hate speech.

If you want to help put a stop to this kind of willed blindness about the dehumanization of women, you can click here to learn more and do some pretty simple things: Send a tweet. Post to an FB page. Maybe write an email. That’s it. Five minutes, ten minutes. One minute.

But if Facebook and their advertisers are flooded with protest, if enough people with money to spend on ads are horrified enough, if FB is hassled enough – things can change. And that means we have to flood them with protest. We are the only ones who can.

One image – not horrifying, except for the idea behind it, and it’ll give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Please take action — this kind of thing is part and parcel of the culture in which one in every five women is raped in her lifetime, and one in every four is the victim of violence from an intimate partner.

When we laugh, or just ignore it — we say it’s ok. But it’s not ok. And we need to call it out.

violence against women

Bigotry is bigotry.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wayne_Brady_APLA.jpg

Wayne Brady at the AIDS Project Los Angeles’ annual AIDS Walk in 2006.

I like Wayne Brady a lot. I’ve liked him a lot since the first moment I saw him on Whose Line is it Anyway? (and am so happy he’ll be joining the show’s new incarnation this summer), and have continued to like him a lot in dramatic roles (the much-lamented Kevin Hill comes to mind), in self-effacing roles (thank you, Dave Chapelle) — hell, I even like the man in commercials. Between the singing, the dancing, the acting, and the comedy, he is a phenomenal talent and I will never understand why he isn’t more of a household name. Get on that America!

Ok, I think I understand part of why Brady isn’t more of a household name.

a) He’s a minority entertainer and (as a long list of minority entertainers can attest) while it’s hard for anyone to follow their passion, it’s even harder for people of color in the entertainment business, and b) he’s a black man who doesn’t present as angry or threatening or magical, and Hollywood just doesn’t know what to do with black men who don’t present as angry or threatening or magical.

Which is, in turn, why he’s often the butt of people’s utterly unimaginative jokes about non-threatening black men. Bill Maher, for instance, often uses the name “Wayne Brady” as a kind of shorthand for “black man who doesn’t fit the stereotype that I like to employ when talking about Real Black Men.”

Bill Maher, on the other hand, is a bona fide bigot, and of the worst kind — the self-satisfied, ostensibly liberal kind. The kind that thinks its ok to be a misogynist, or an Islamophobe, or to make sweeping and destructive statements about what Real Black Men are like, statements that traffic in the dehumanization of whole segments of society, because it’s just a joke. Or because any right-thinking liberal would hate Muslims, because, ewww Muslims, mirite? Because he’s high on his own fumes, basically.

So, to sum up: I really like Wayne Brady, and I really dislike Bill Maher.

Thus, when I saw that Wayne Brady was publicly responding to Maher’s bigotry, I was initially thrilled, because come on now. It’s enough already! Bill Maher is an uber-wealthy, influential, straight white dude happily ensconced in America’s entertainment elite — making jokes at the expense of anyone who is not in (roughly) the same position is ugly and lazy. Speak truth to power, Bill, I know you can! But stop using people as props in your apparently endless display of smug self-regard. Please.

And then.

Then I watched the interview Brady gave to Marc Lamont Hill on HuffPost Live, and here’s the thing. I’m with him — I’m so totally with him! — except for one thing. See if you can spot it:

When [Maher] starts to drag me in to use me as the cultural lynch-pin in his “[Barack Obama's] not black enough” argument, that’s bullshit. Because a) Bill Maher has never walked in my shoes, nor in any black man’s shoes… Just because you’ve been with a black woman or two, and I’ve seen some of them, it’s questionable if they were women, just because you’ve done that…now you lived the black experience? Oh, now you’re down? No.

Dude, come on!

I do not know the black experience, male or female. But I know bigotry when I see it, and gay/trans*-bashing in the course of telling someone to drop their racist bullshit is just not ok. Not ok! Not even remotely, a teeny-tiny bit, ok.

I don’t get handed a get-out-of-jail-free card if I say something racist because I’m a woman and I’ve lived with misogyny; gay folks don’t get handed get-out-of-jail-free cards if they launch into a step-and-fetch-it act. And black comedians are no more handed get-out-of-jail-free cards for homo- and/or transphobic jokes than anyone else (not to mention the misogyny inherent in the quip. It was a very, very full quip).

Mr. Brady — you’re incredibly talented. Overwhelmingly talented. Gobsmackingly talented. Moreover, you’re absolutely right about Bill Maher, I know you’re on the side of the angels when it comes to LGBTQ rights, and I suspect you’re on the side of the angels when it comes to women’s rights.

But it is lazy, unkind, and bigoted to prop your laughs on sweeping and destructive cultural attitudes about Real Women, attitudes that trade in the dehumanization of LGBTQ people and What Real Women Should Look Like and Who Real Men Date. So please — stop. And if you have a moment, you might even apologize. Because aside from anything else, and not to put too fine a point on it, but stuff like that feeds into an atmosphere that literally gets people killed.

How did your Senators vote on background checks? Let them know what you think.

Well, despite the fact that 90% of Americans want to see background checks for gun purchases written into law; despite the fact that the bill actually got a majority of votes in the Senate; and despite the fact that some 3,500 Americans have been fatally shot since the Newtown massacre on December 12 - the Senate voted down the Manchin-Toomey background check bill.

I will be honest: I am so angry, I can hardly see straight. This is not right. By any measure.

At the same time, I agree with the President: This is Round One (you can watch the video of his very powerful, and very angry, statement, below). This will happen, if we don’t lose focus, if we don’t lose our passion. If we continue to stand up and say that something has to change – we will bring that change.

Here’s how we do that: We don’t let up. We keep the pressure on.

Click here to see how the vote broke down, and if your Senator(s) voted yea, please call and thank them, especially if it’s one of these Republicans:

  • McCain (R-AZ) 202-224-2235
  • Kirk (R-IL) 202-224-2854
  • Toomey (R-PA) 202- 224-4254
  • Collins (R-ME) 202-224-2523

If, on the other hand, your Senator(s) voted no, call them and tell them what you think – here’s the list of all the nays, by state, followed by their direct phone numbers* (if you’re looking for email addresses, go here).

CALL THEM.

  • Alabama: Sessions (202) 224-4124  Shelby (202) 224-5744
  • Alaska: Begich (202) 224-3004  Murkowski (202) 224-6665
  • Arizona: Flake (202) 224-4521
  • Arkansas: Boozman (202) 224-4843  Pryor (202) 224-2353
  • Florida: Rubio (202) 224-3041
  • Georgia: Chambliss (202) 224-3521  Isakson (202) 224-3643
  • Idaho:  Crapo (202) 224-6142  Risch (202) 224-2752
  • Indiana:  Coats  (202) 224-5623
  • Iowa:  Grassley (202) 224-3744
  • Kansas: Moran (202) 224-6521  Roberts (202) 224-4774
  • Kentucky: McConnell (202) 224-2541  Paul (202) 224-4343
  • Louisiana:  Vitter (202) 224-4623
  • Mississippi:  Cochran (202) 224-5054  Wicker (202) 224-6154
  • Missouri:  Blunt (202) 224-5721
  • Montana:  Baucus (202) 224-2651
  • Nebraska: Fischer (202) 224-6551  Johanns (202) 224-4224
  • Nevada:  Heller (202) 224-6244 Reid (but Senator Reid gets a pass for voting against the thing he supports for the reasons you can read about by clicking here)
  • New Hampshire:  Ayotte (202) 224-3324
  • North Carolina:  Burr (202) 224-3154
  • North Dakota:  Heitkamp (202) 224-2043  Hoeven (202) 224-2551
  • Ohio: Portman  (202) 224-3353
  • Oklahoma: Coburn (202) 224-5754  Inhofe (202) 224-4721
  • South Carolina: Graham (202) 224-5972  Scott (202) 224-6121
  • South Dakota: Thune (202) 224-2321
  • Tennessee: Alexander (202) 224-4944  Corker (202) 224-3344
  • Texas: Cornyn (202) 224-2934  Cruz (202) 224-5922
  • Utah: Hatch (202) 224-5251  Lee (202) 224-5444
  • Wisconsin:  Johnson (202) 224-5323
  • Wyoming:  Barrasso (202) 224-6441  Enzi (202) 224-3424

*Please note: I copy-pasted these numbers from the Senate website. If something’s amiss (my fault or theirs) you can always call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask for your Senators by name.

*

Big, big h/t to my internet pal @ferallike, who started tweeting out phone numbers almost immediately upon the completion of the vote.

Senate vote Wednesday afternoon on gun purchase background checks – CALL YOUR SENATORS.

Moment Of Truth: Senate To Vote On Background Checks

It’s a moment of truth for the centerpiece of Congress’s efforts to curb gun violence — the first major effort in nearly two decades. Defeat would be a huge blow to the cause and to the families of the Newtown, Conn. shooting victims who have urged Washington to act.

Call them, call them, call them – and if you’ve already done this once, please do it again, even if your Senators are Republicans and you know they’re opposed. They need to hear from us over and over – nearly 3,500 Americans have been fatally shot since the Newtown massacre on December 14.

  • The US Senate: 202-224-3121. If you’re not sure who your Senators are, find them by clicking here (if you’d rather send an email, you’ll find that information here, too).
  • The White House: 202-456-1111 Let President Obama know that  you support his efforts, and encourage him to continue to fight the fight.

Sample scripts/letters:

  1. When speaking with a Senator who’s opposed to the bill: “Hi, I’m calling from [location], and though I know that the Senator doesn’t plan to vote in favor of background checks, I wanted to make sure s/he knows that I support the bill currently being considered in the Senate. Background checks are nothing more than basic common sense, and having them in place could have saved some of the nearly 3,500 Americans who have been fatally shot since Newtown. I very much hope that the Senator will reconsider his/her position.”
  2. When speaking with a Senator who supports the bill or may be on the fence: ”Hi, I’m calling from [location], and I just wanted to make sure that the Senator knows that I support the White House gun control initiative. I think the President’s plan, in particular the idea of background checks, is simple common sense, and I very much hope that the Senator will vote for the Senate bill in question.”

h/t TPM

“GOP Opposition Mounts To Background Checks”; “Democrats Scramble To Keep Gun Control Bill Alive”

Democrats Scramble To Keep Gun Control Bill Alive:

Senate Democrats were desperately working Tuesday to keep alive the modest bipartisan legislation to expand mandatory background checks to some gun sales, claiming momentum in public and offering new concessions to skeptical senators in private.

GOP Opposition Mounts To Background Checks:

Republican opposition is growing to a bipartisan Senate plan for expanding background checks for firearms buyers, enough to put the proposal’s fate in jeopardy. But the measure may change as both sides compete for support in one of the pivotal fights in the battle over curbing guns.

The Senate was continuing debate Tuesday on a wide-ranging gun control bill, with the focus on a background check compromise struck last week between Sens. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Manchin said the vote on that amendment was likely to be delayed from midweek to late in the week, a move that would give both sides more time to win over supporters.

Call them, call them, call them – and if you’ve already done this once, please do it again, even if your Senators are Republicans and you know they’re opposed. They need to hear from us over and over – nearly 3,500 Americans have been fatally shot since the Newtown massacre on December 14.

  • The US Senate: 202-224-3121. If you’re not sure who your Senators are, find them by clicking here (if you’d rather send an email, you’ll find that information here, too).
  • The White House: 202-456-1111 Let President Obama know that  you support his efforts, and encourage him to continue to fight the fight.

Sample scripts/letters:

  1. When speaking with a Senator who’s opposed to the bill: “Hi, I’m calling from [location], and though I know that the Senator doesn’t plan to vote in favor of background checks, I wanted to make sure s/he knows that I support the bill currently being considered in the Senate. Background checks are nothing more than basic common sense, and having them in place could have saved some of the nearly 3,500 Americans who have been fatally shot since Newtown. I very much hope that the Senator will reconsider his/her position.”
  2. When speaking with a Senator who supports the bill or may be on the fence: “Hi, I’m calling from [location], and I just wanted to make sure that the Senator knows that I support the White House gun control initiative. I think the President’s plan, in particular the idea of background checks, is simple common sense, and I very much hope that the Senator will vote for the Senate bill in question.”

h/t TPM

Reid: Senate could vote on gun measures as soon as Thursday.

It’s looking like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may bring new gun measures to a vote in the Senate as early as Thursday:

Reid said that he would move to cut off debate on a gun control law on Tuesday evening with hopes of beginning votes as soon as Thursday on existing Democratic legislation passed out of committee last month….

The Nevada senator’s position has been strengthen[ed] as a series of Republican senators – in the face of mounting pressure from President Barack Obama – have said they would not join with their more conservative colleagues to force Reid to produce a filibuster-proof 60 or more votes to move forward with debate on gun legislation.

Speaking on the Senate floor this morning, Reid invoked his own father’s suicide as he pressed for background checks:

“Sometimes people in a fit of passion will purchase the handgun to do bad things with it… even as my dad did, kill themselves. Waiting a few days helps. Requiring a simple background check every time a gun is sold is common sense.”

As of this day, Tuesday April 9, at least 3,346 Americans have been fatally shot since the Newtown massacre.

If you want to support the President and Senator Reid as they push for new gun measures, here are some simple ways to do that (and if you’ve already done this once, please do it again — they need to hear from us over and over):

  • Call the US Senate: 202-224-3121. If you’re not sure who your Senators are, find them by clicking here (if you’d rather send an email, you’ll find that information here, too).
  • Call the US House: 202-224-3121. If you’re not sure who your member of Congress is, find him or her by clicking here (if you’d rather send an email, you’ll find that information here, too).
  • Call the White House : 202-456-1111 Let President Obama know that  you support his efforts, and encourage him to continue to fight the fight.

Sample script/letter:

Hi, I’m calling from [location], and I just wanted to make sure that the President/Senator/Representative knows that I support the White House gun control initiative. I think the President’s plan, in particular the idea of background checks, is simple common sense, and I very much hope that the Senator/Representative will support/not block upcoming legislation.

Obama: “Tears aren’t enough.”

Update: As of Tuesday, April 2, the number of Americans fatally shot since the Newtown massacre has risen to 3,292; that’s 239 additional deaths since the President spoke on the issue last week [see below], and it includes 4 year old  Rahquel Carr, shot in Miami-Dade in a parked car. For details on those statistics, please go to Slate; for Rahquel’s story, please go here.

***************

This morning, the President spoke about gun violence and the need for new laws:

I ask every American to find out where your member of Congress stands on these ideas. If they’re not part of that 90% who agree that we should make it harder for a criminal or somebody with severe mental illness to buy a gun, then you should ask them why not. Why are you part of the 10%?

There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t get this done. But the reason we’re talking about it here today is because it’s not done until it’s done. And there are some powerful voices on the other side that are interested in running out the clock, or changing the subject, or drowning out the majority of the American people to prevent any of these reforms from happening at all. They’re doing everything they can to make all of our progress collapse under the weight of fear and frustration, their assumption is that people will just forget about it.

…I want to make sure every American is listening today. Less than 100 days ago, [Newtown] happened. And the entire country was shocked. And the entire country pledged that we would do something about it and this time it would be different. Shame on us if we’ve forgotten. I haven’t forgotten those kids. Shame on us if we’ve forgotten.

There’s one thing that I’ve said consistently since I first ran for this office: Nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change.

*

I watch this man speak a lot. Every time he speaks on this issue, he is alight with righteous anger — and he is not backing down. I am so grateful.

In the [fewer than] 100 days since the Newtown massacre, 3084 Americans have been fatally shot. Yesterday, it was 3,053. That’s what we’re looking at: about 30 new gun deaths every single day.

If we want to make an effective change in those kinds of numbers, we have to let Congress know, because as he keeps reminding us, the President cannot do it alone.

Here’s what you can do (and if you’ve already done it once, please do it again):

  • Call the US House: 202-224-3121. If you’re not sure who your member of Congress is, find him or her by clicking here (if you’d rather send an email, you’ll find that information here, too).
  • Call the US Senate: 202-224-3121. If you’re not sure who your Senators are, find them by clicking here (if you’d rather send an email, you’ll find that information here, too).
  • Call the White House : 202-456-1111 Let President Obama know that  you support his efforts, and encourage him to continue to fight the fight.

Sample script/letter:

Hi, I’m calling from [location], and I just wanted to make sure that President Obama/Senator XXXXX/Representative XXXXX knows that I support the White House gun control initiative. I think that things like background checks, limits on magazine capacity, and a ban on assault weapons are common sense, and I think it’s so important to also work with inner city communities to address their particular needs — less than 1% of urban populations are responsible for about 70% of all shootings in cities, and it’s tragic that so many people are held hostage to that violence.

Useful resources:

Please call. The President’s righteous anger and dedication is not enough — this is our job. Please call.

h/t Steve Benen at Maddow Blog.

Why white people can’t use the n-word.

n_wordMuch of my political commentary really boils down to: Don’t be an asshole.

So, honestly, my personal go-to response to the very notion that white people occasionally get wrought up over the fact that they really-but-really should not say the n-word under any circumstances, “friendly” or not, is: Don’t be an asshole. Because seriously, how hard is that? Millions of people are telling you that when you use that word, it’s painful and offensive. That should, in a perfect world, be enough.

I mean, come on! The n-word isn’t even like, I don’t know, “bitch,” about which there is real disagreement among women. Millions upon millions of black folks are pretty clear on the fact that white Americans should never ever put that word in our mouths. Ever. “But they say it to each other,” you say? So the effing eff what. You are not them. The English language is positively chock-a-block with words — words that don’t carry the lash, and centuries of systematic terrorism, and the rending of families, and the continued devaluation of people who happen to be going about the business of Being Human While Black — that you can use with your black friends. I promise! Do.Not.Be.An.Asshole.

Alas, the world is not perfect, and “don’t be an asshole” isn’t really much of an argument. Indeed, the argument could be made that understanding why a particular behavior is asshole-y is pretty useful in ridding ourselves of said assholery — and as he so often does, Jay Smooth has our backs on this. Give him a listen, and tell all your white friends.

And don’t be an asshole.

Dear Mr. President – If you wouldn’t mind, a small edit.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:President_Barack_Obama.jpgEarlier this week, a ripple of dissatisfaction rolled across the Progressive internet regarding five words in President Obama’s State of the Union address.

“We know our economy is stronger,” the President said, “when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence.”

“Our wives, mothers, and daughters” – it’s a rhetorical device that the President often uses in speeches, and in this case, it came in service of workplace equality and confronting domestic violence. As I’ve said before, many times, this President is a feminist, and I believe that his discussion of and action on these two issues is evidence of that. So you know: Huzzah!

Alas, no. A petition has been created at WhiteHouse.gov calling on Mr. Obama to change his rhetoric. It reads in part:

This “our wives, mothers, and daughters” phrase is one he routinely employs, but it is counterproductive to the women’s equality the President is ostensibly supporting.

Defining women by their relationships to other people is reductive, misogynist, and alienating to women who do not define ourselves exclusively by our relationships to others. Further, by referring to “our” wives et al, the President appears to be talking to The Men of America about Their Women, rather than talking to men AND women.

Sigh.

I mean: Yes, I agree notionally with pretty much all of this. Referring to women “exclusively by our relationships to others” is harmful, etc, but a) I weary of people who choose not to consider the source  (or even acknowledge any credit due – Barack Obama “ostensibly” supports women’s equality?); and b) it’s a rhetorical device.

As the American Prospect’s Monica Potts commented in her Twitter feed the next day, “it’s a rhetoricians trick, not the same old misogyny.” It’s a way to draw the listener in and create emotional intimacy with abstract issues, one I employ in my writing frequently. In the same speech, the President also said “we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations…” – same device. It works because the speaker is saying to his audience: “Imagine the people you value in your life, and join me in caring for all people like them.”

But then (and I hate when this happens) I started to think about it, and while I will neither be signing the petition nor complaining to or about the President (who is a feminist), here’s where I think an actual problem lies: Men who are leaders and opinion shapers — particularly of a certain age — are far, far more likely to say “wives, mothers, and daughters” than they are to say “husbands, fathers, and sons.” The President frequently refers to himself as these last three things, but I can’t recall (and take that for what it’s worth) him saying “our husbands, fathers, and sons,” or anything like it. At the State of the Union, “son” came up once, in the aforementioned context, “fatherhood” was also mentioned once, and “husband” not at all.

Ultimately where this leads, whether intended or not, is the Othering of women, by which I mean: The undergirding of such speech patterns becomes “I am a man talking to men about women” — the normative, default “American” is, thus, a man, and women are the Other. (Or, in the petition’s words: “the President appears to be talking to The Men of America about Their Women, rather than talking to men AND women.”)

For this to not be the case, the speaker has to also refer to men with relational language, at least now and then. Mr. Obama could say “Americans know that our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters are given the same rights that our husbands, fathers and sons enjoy” — and: Boom. Problem solved, with the added advantage of introducing a turn of phrase that expresses a caring relationship with men, language too infrequently heard.

To my mind, there’s nothing inherently wrong with referring to women in this way, as long as it is not, in fact, exclusive — whether or not we personally “define ourselves exclusively by our relationships to others,” most of us do exist in those relationships. The language just needs a tweak, an expansion, to be more inclusive.

And so I shall neither sign, nor complain — but I will make a request:

Dear Mr. President,

You and I are of the same generation, and we were both raised to a great extent by our grandparents. Like me, you often sound like you’re about 20 years old than you are, and sometimes that’s very sweet and feels familiar. Sometimes, however, you sound a little bit Stone-Agey, as when you inadvertently make it sound like the Americans you’re talking to are exclusively male (see above blog post). When you do this, you inadvertently damage the causes I know you espouse: Equality, mutual respect, and a better future for all Americans.

I would be grateful if you could work with your speechwriters to achieve an even more inclusive vocabulary than you already use. I’m certain many other American women (and men) would be similarly grateful.

Thank you so much for all you do to advance feminist goals and move us toward a more perfect union.

Sincerely,

Emily L. Hauser

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