by Unknown | 8/25/2008 08:16:00 PM
Daisy of Daisy's Dead Air has a guest post at Feministe entitled "Time Out For Grandma." In the piece, she bemoans the exclusion of older women from the left blogosphere:

In short, the treatment of old women in Blogdonia* is a scandal and mirrors the dismissal of old women in the culture at large. Very few old women are included in the “Big Blogs”–with the exception of Arianna Huffington, who owns hers outright. Older men are more often in established writing careers and have easily segued into blogging. Older women with time on their hands after retirement or raising children, are great candidates to start blogging. Many of us wrote regular book-length letters (in longhand no less), back in the day. Although we were once quite accustomed to writing and journaling, it seems that many of us get near a computer and totally freeze up. This seems like the staked-out territory of the young, and WHAT the devil are we doing here? (Men, it seems, never ask themselves that question, even when they should.) Lots of old-women blogs are started and then never kept up. Others are afraid to stray off a topic of expertise… thus, you have countless cooking and gardening blogs, but not the great variety of content from the average older man’s blog, which will typically include his political opinions, movie reviews, stories from his life, etc.

I was interviewed for this piece, and while I'm not quoted in it, I think Daisy's done a generally fine job with her post. I agree with her that older women are underrepresented and underappreciated in the blogosphere, and more importantly I concur that this fact is a symptom of the disturbing marginalization of older women in our society. Older women, like everyone else, deserve equal treatment based upon their common humanity. The links to older women blogs provided in the article are very useful as well, and well worth checking out.

Where I disagree with the post is when Daisy implies that older women somehow deserve more than equal treatment based on the important strides made by the 1960's generation of feminists. Here's Daisy:

As I wrote in my “Thank a Second-Wave (OLD) Feminist” post, lots of us were instrumental in very basic reforms that many of you now take for granted. Our stories are part of the feminist legacy, and deserve to be told. ... And of course there is this essential truth: older women, in general, are simply not considered very important. Speaking of the conventions, it is this sentiment that we see amplified in Hillary’s supporters, a general feeling of having been ignored and dissed. I daresay their anger is not simply about Hillary, but she makes a great focal point.

Again, I agree that women who were instrumental in the feminist revolution should be honored for their contributions in that regard. On the other hand, however, we shouldn't venerate every member of the feminist generation just because some of them made a difference. Nor should the past heroism of older women privilege their contributions today, any more than Ralph Nader's heroic actions in the 1970's entitle him to work against progressive interests today. Hillary Clinton doesn't get a pass on criticism for her corporate toolishness just because her generation accomplished great things for American women. Older women deserve recognition for their sacrifices and triumphs, but they aren't more equal than others, and arguments for why they're entitled to special treatment are no more fair than how they're being treated today.

Similarly, I have to disagree with this:

...One thing you can do, if you have a blog, is link old lady bloggers. If you go down your blogroll, and you can’t find anyone old, ask yourself why that is. It is no accident. You must make the effort.

The assumption that people (like me) who don't link to older women are doing so as a conscious and malicious choice is frankly offensive. I can testify to the fact that before Daisy brought up the issue, it hadn't occurred to me that I didn't link to any blogs with women over 50 on them. Since then, I've been on the lookout for older women blogs to link to, but I haven't found any yet that I'd like to add. I do agree that it's good to have diversity on our blogrolls, and I hope to have some older women blogs on there soon. But I don't believe blogrolls are the root of the problem, nor do I think they have a large role to play in the solution of this or any other social ill.

Daisy's post is well worth reading for the points it makes and the questions it raises. But I think her arguments leave something to be desired, if only because nobody likes being told that other people are better than they are. As a member of a group that she rightly identifies as being discriminated against, she of all people should know better.




Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/26/2008 12:23 AM:

I've never been comfortable with the argument that making a concious effort not to exclude a category of people whose exclusion has been brought to your attention is "special treatment. "Blogrolls" is a synecdoche for "paying attention to"....

I think you may be overreacting to "It is no accident": I don't read that as implying a "conscious and malicious choice." There's a well-established social and critical literature on the ways in which society undervalues, silences and sidelines older women. It may not be personal, or deliberate, but it can still be very real.


Blogger Unknown on 8/26/2008 7:44 AM:

Perhaps you're right. Regardless, we had a rather rancorous e-mail exchange when she first decided to interview me, so perhaps my piece is a reaction to that as well.

Regardless, I do plan to make that conscious effort within the next few days.


Anonymous Anonymous on 8/26/2008 7:48 AM:

Hi, Jeremy,

Interesting post, especially for me, a 57-year old woman who happens to be an historian. I have 35 years of experience working successfully for the government in Washington, including 14 years as
an employee of the National Archives tasked with reviewing then secret Nixon tapes for public access. A number of people have asked me why I do not blog and my answer always has centered on the comment function.

I would not want to have a blog where readers could not comment. But as an historian and a current employee of the federal government, I would not want to be associated with reader comments to which I could not respond.

As long as I work for the government, I have limitations on my freedom of speech. I can speak about certain topics but not others. Threads evolve and people commenting are under no obligation to stick narrowly to the points raised in an essay. (You see this in the comment I am posting here which moves beyond the points raised by Daisy!) I might end up in a position where I post a blog entry, readers comment, I can’t explain why I disagree, and then as blog owner, I’m stuck. The Internet creates permanent electronic footprints.

Jeremy, I too am mystified by the perception that linking in blogrolls to older women’s blogs might involve a conscious effort. As you do, I find that offensive. The democratic nature of the blogosphere ensures that people link to whomever they wish. No one can order others to link to blogs *for reasons unrelated to content.* I certainly don’t see how one can look at this as a quota issue. Generally, I agree with you that many of the arguments in Daisy’s essay, while clearly heartfelt, leave something to be desired.

I do wonder whether some older non-academic women avoid blogging not because of a lack of confidence or feeling out of place but due to reasons related to safety. I’ve read reports of instances where some women bloggers stopped blogging because they became the targets of threats and virtual stalkers.

In a few instances, from what I'e read about in posted news stories, a reader decided to go after a blogging woman, posted false and vilely defamatory information about her elsewhere which then became Google-reachable. There is no way to erase or delete such defamatory information. It becomes part of what is available for others to search on the web.

Other women in the blogosphere have become targets of some pretty vile threats against their physical safety, including people threatening to find out where they live. To the extent older women have read about such instances, that might affect the willingness of a few of them to blog.

On a less somber note, I think woman bloggers would benefit from studying the different ways that people interact verbally. Professor Deborah Tannen has written about this in her books (You Just Don’t Understand; Working 9 to 5, etc) and articles. I remember reading an op ed she published several years ago in the Washington Post on the argument culture.

Dr. Tannen believes that men are more likely than women to look at and be sensitive to where they stand in relation to the group. She calls that being one-up or one- down. Although I’m not a big fan of stereotypes, I think for some men involved in virtual discussions, there’s something to it.
Certainly, in following threads on HNN over the years, I’ve picked up at times on a few people playing king of the hill.

I’ve seen clear jockeying for position in some threads on HNN. I’ve recognized on HNN what Dr. Tannen would describe as ritualistic behaviors involving the exchange of personal insults. Even academics are not immune to that. Some academic historians on HNN argue in a civil fashion (Gil Troy, you) while others do not.

Curiously, what seems effective to one reader leaves another cold. For example, a reader on HNN used to swat away those who did not agree with him politically by using the term “mewling” to characterize their postings. It was meant to convey strength by disparaging opponents as being nothing more than helpless little animals. But for me, the fact that this man used that term repeatedly always came across as a sign of weakness to me. I respected him for his military service to the U.S. but not for the way he engaged others verbally.

Dr. Tannen believes that women are less inclined to look at status during discussions. She believes that they often focus more on whether everyone gets a say, whether all voices are heard, etc. That means that the very tactics that some men use with ease to establish dominance in a group discussion may strike some women as efforts to shut down participation. Not everyone studies the use of linguistic tactics. Except when reading it is required in the workplace, I suspect women are more inclined to read on their own books such as Dr. Tannen’s than men are.

Even recognizing what is happening with ritualistic insults doesn’t always make it easy to decide how to deal with them. Twice, I ultimtely ended up feeling sorry for people who insulted me! In at least two instances, I withdrew from Internet forums (one a professional Listserv, another a blog) because I became the target of insults I did not feel like answering. To me, the fact that people insulted me seemed to signal they could not answer effectively and might feel stuck regarding the arguments I had offered. But I didn’t feel comfortable calling them out on that. So, in both cases, I just dropped out of the group. I just had a sense that by insulting me, they were telling me “this is too difficult for me, you’re asking more of me than I am capable of doing.” Having no desire to make them miserable, I just got out and left them to virtual companions with whom they felt more comfortable.

You have to decide in some instances what you think the primary purpose of a listserv or blog is. If it is to provide solidarity or professional validation to the dominant group, an outsider might just decide that the members of the dominant group deserve a more insular but comfortable place for discussion without the presence of intruders. What the members can bear is something I take into account in examining discourse on the web.

Joel Achenbach, who writes an online column for the Washington Post (Achenblog), wrote in May 2008 about punditry. "The demands of punditry disallow intellectual modesty. Certainly we see that in the world of TV and radio, where we've created a political culture dominated by a certain kind of loud, angry, chest-beating male. The culture of bluster is driven by ratings -- and, online, by page views. The moderated opinion, nuanced and open-minded, is a field mouse in a land patrolled by raptors. Punditry increasingly is the province of partisans, table-pounders, the permanently outraged, the congenitally ungenerous."

All in all, I think Internet discourse will give linguistics experts a lot to study in the future. The issues seem to go far beyond what Daisy raises.

Your HNN friend, Maarja


Blogger Unknown on 8/26/2008 1:13 PM:

Maarja, thanks for your excellent comment. Your blog, if you had one, would be one I would gladly link to. I'd also say that if you're concerned about comments, I think you could get around that pretty easily, with a willingness to be aggressive about deleting comments, coupled with a statement, up front, about why you will have to do this. I don't think most people would have a problem with that.

Regardless, I'm not in disagreement with Daisy's argument about quotas, and I do plan to find and add a few older female bloggers to my blogroll, either today or tomorrow. I'll report back here when I've done so.


Anonymous Anonymous on 8/27/2008 6:45 AM:

Thanks for the kind words, Jeremy!

If I ever do decide to blog, it will have to wait until I leave federal service. To understand why, consider that after I posted my comment here, I re-read the title of your posting and thought, hmmm, given my opening paragraph, I'll have to post a disclaimer saying that I was not proposing that I become a part of the "left blogosphere." I truly am an Independent, someone who until about 1989 actually self identified as a Republican. I can't be described as being either on the right or the left and would not want to leave an implication that this would be the case.

Your point about deleting comments makes sense but the criteria I would have to apply would be so complicated and opaque to those who blog with fewer restraints, I still would face challenges. Also, I'm not a big fan of bloggers who delete comments except when absolutely necessary. My natural tendency with reasonably held and expressed views by others is to say you go your way, I'll go mine. I even have a pretty good tolerance for the type of posting that others might call trolling, if a posting merely reminded a reader of a tangentially related topic which they then spun out in a comment. But as a fed, I couldn't apply a live and let live approach to some topics that might arise in comments. Leaving certain comments under my blog essays might expose me to charges that I endorse something I might not. Deleting them might make me look overly thin skinned or petty. So it would get complicated.

I learned a lot about Washington in my work with the Nixon tapes as a federal historian-archivist employed by the National Archives. The biggest lesson was that the Archives depends on the Department of Justice to defend it in court during litigation. I learned how this can play out when Professor Stanley Kutler filed a lawsuit against the National Archives to obtain access to unreleased Nixon tapes. At the time, my supervisor and I had signed off approvals on behalf of the National Archives on all the work done by federal archivists with the Nixon tapes for public disclosure.

Nixon entered the case as intervenor and his lawyers argued that the Archives should not release the tapes based on the work we had done with them. They implied bias against Nixon in archival screening for public access. When DOJ's attorneys failed to mount a robust defense when Nixon's attorneys implied bias against Nixon in our work, I came to understand how complicated client relationships can be in Washington. Sometimes, when a former President's representative throws charges at you, you are on your own, even if you supposedly fall under the umbrella of protection by DOJ.

The implications in 1992 by Nixon's lawyer of bias on our part were unfounded: (1) there were no blogs or listservs back in those days and we had clean public records with no electronic footprints and (2) the National Archives Nixon tapes supervisor and I both actually had voted for Nixon in 1972. DOJ seemed uninterested in any of that, or in the outstanding ratings Archives' management had approved for us. The position in 1992 was that Nixon's tapes just were not going to be opened to the public yet and that was that. Prof. Kutler later said he thought that Nixon was determined that the tapes not be opened during his lifetime. (Nixon died in 1994.)

That this sort of thing happened to us in 1992 despite the charge being groundless explains why these days I warn young archivists and historians that while they have first amendment rights, they cannot control the use that others may make in the future of their electronic paper trails if they decide to blog about certain issues. A determined opponent may cherry pick past statements and use them against an archivist in court. And the archivist may have no opportunity to rebut them if DOJ falls silent. Anyone who deals with power players does well to keep that in mind. It's not that they can't speak out, but that others may use their words against them in ways that they never imagined or might not find fair. They need to take that into account. I don't mean by that that people should fall silent. Rather that they should keep in mind that even if they act with integrity themselves, they cannot control how others will act towards them.

When I discuss this with young archivists, I say that there is more leeway for some than for others, depending on where people plan to look for work. I mounted a strong defense of my boss when I was questioned by Nixon's lawyers during two days of testimony in 1992. They didn't scare me. And I knew my boss deserved a robust defense and my professional protection. But you never can tell whether someone will be willing to speak up for you as I once did for my supervisor. Things can become very, very complicated in Washington, where I still work, although no longer for the National Archives.

All my best,