Posts Tagged ‘sexism’

Studying Naked

Sophie Germain (1776-1831), a great French mathematician.

No, not me. Sophie Germain. I took a study break last night and was reading about her.

Unfortunately, I got absorbed in my reading and the next thing I knew, it was 2:30am. I’ve been sleepy all day. I know that I’m too young to be “too old for this,” but today I sure felt like it.

Sophie Germain (1776-1831) was a French mathematician who overcame sexual discrimination to achieve great things. She first got interested in mathematics by reading the books in her father’s library. But her parents disapproved of her interest because it wasn’t considered suitable for a young woman. So she started sneaking the books up to her bedroom at night and reading by candlelight.

When her parents found out — well, I guess it was a different era. And maybe her parents were a little crazy. They took away her clothes and kept her bedroom ice cold, but even being naked and freezing couldn’t stop her from studying mathematics. So they gave up trying to stop her.

French society hadn’t given up, of course. The university wouldn’t admit her as a student because she was a woman. To get her education, she eavesdropped at the doors of lecture halls and borrowed lecture notes from male students.

She started writing mathematical articles, using the pen name of Antoine LeBlanc to hide the fact that she was a woman. Eventually, she wrote to the greatest mathematician of the age, Carl Friedrich Gauss. When Gauss discovered her true identity, he became her dedicated supporter. He wrote that she had “the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius.”

Urged by Gauss, in 1831 the University of Gottingen decided to award Germain a doctorate for her work in mathematics. That was an almost unheard-of honor for a woman in a sexist society. Sadly, Germain died before she could receive the award. But her example of courage and determination can still inspire us today. Even when we’re so tired that we feel like we’re “too old for this.” 🙂

(Blog post #195!)

Copyright 2011 by Rinth de Shadley.


I Was Berlusconi’s Love Toy

Silvio Berlusconi. Photo: Stefano Rellandini/Reuters.


And you were what?!

Silvio Berlusconi is the Prime Minister of Italy.

I was only kidding about the love toy part.

Lately, Berlusconi has been denounced because he seems to jump into bed with anything that’s female, even if it’s a minor. But in spite of his piggish and possibly illegal behavior, more than half of the Italian population still supports him. What’s going on?

What’s going on is that a lot of people still haven’t caught up with the 21st century. That doesn’t make them bad people, but it does mean that they might support bad things.

Besides being prime minister, Berlusconi owns about half of the television stations and news media in Italy. According to Chiara Volpato, a professor of social psychology at the University of Milan in Italy, that enables him to reinforce sexist viewpoints:

In Berlusconi’s media, women and minors are denigrated to a “decorative” role. This representation cements women’s subordinate position in Italian society.

As a result, the World Economic Forum’s 2010 report ranked Italy 74th in equality of women.

There’s a reason that I’ll never be anyone’s “decoration.” It’s not just that I have self-respect: that’s an effect, not the cause. The cause is that my society gives me freedom, rights, opportunities, and a status (mostly) equal to men. Women haven’t always had those things.

Let’s review human history. Up until fairly recently, societies were organized mainly by violence. People who were physically strongest, most aggressive, and most driven to dominate others were the ones who ended up running things. Unsurprisingly, they were mostly men. Not all men are like that, but more men are than women.

Violence still plays a role, let’s not have any illusions about that. But as civilization has developed, violence has gradually become less important than thinking, negotiation, and cooperation.

Men can throw a spear farther than we can. They can outrun us and overpower us physically. But when cooperation replaces violence, women become just as powerful as men, though in different ways. In general, we’re better at cooperation. We don’t care as much about “dominating” others. We just want to make sure that everyone is included and taken care of.

When civilization advances to that point, the old stereotypes and social roles begin to break down. Women are no longer forced into the roles of servant and plaything for men.

Berlusconi and other defenders of the old order are fighting to stop that evolution. But in the long run, they can’t succeed. Nobody wants to go back to living in caves: for one thing, you can’t get cell phone reception there.

Copyright 2011 by Rinth de Shadley.

Obsolete Sexist Joke of the Week

It’s only funny because it’s (mostly) not true anymore.

On the TV show “Modern Family” this week, the smart daughter Alex envies the popularity of her sister Haley:

Alex: So dumb guys go for dumb girls. And smart guys go for dumb girls. What do smart girls get?

Father: Cats, mostly.

For the record, we have only one cat. She belongs to the whole family.

And I’ve got a smart guy. So there. 🙂

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

Profusely Praising Priapi

Michelangelo’s David, a classic sculpture at the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze in Florence, Italy. Yes, he’s nude. Get over it.

Please permit me to perambulate a path of profound and possibly perverse priapic prose, perhaps puckering playfully before man’s pride.

Oh, I do like guys. I like how they smell. I like how they look. I like how they feel. I like how they act.

I like it that they’re simple and direct. I like it that they’re crazy and obsessed. I like it that they’re often totally clueless. I like it that their motivations are usually pretty transparent.

But not everyone likes guys. Some people think that they’re obsolete.

In the current issue of The Atlantic magazine, Hanna Rosin heralds “The End of Men:”

Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. … What if modern, post-industrial society is simply better suited to women?

I don’t want to over-simplify Hanna’s thesis, but her essential argument seems to be:

  • “Male” qualities such as physical strength, decisiveness, and craving for adventure were most useful in pre-industrial societies. They are much less significant in post-industrial societies.
  • “Female” qualities such as social intelligence, patience, conscientiousness, and nurturing have now become more significant than male qualities.
  • As a result, women are displacing men as the dominant sex.

I put “male” and “female” in quotes because both sexes have all of those qualities. On average, men are physically stronger than we are and they have less social intelligence. On average, we are more patient and systematic than men. But there is so much variation between individuals that generalizations can deceive us.

Because men and women are different (on average), each tends to do some things better than the other. And I really don’t like that word, “dominant” — at least, outside of certain recreational contexts. 🙂

The world needs dreamers and adventurers. They’re the ones who risk their lives on crazy theories that, 999 times out of 1,000, aren’t true. But it’s that 1 time out of 1,000 when they’re right that moves us forward. And men are more prone to take those crazy risks than we are, though we can do it, too.

The world also needs patient, careful, systematic thinkers who can work together in teams and support each other. Without them, the discoveries of dreamers and adventurers would never get put to work for everyone’s benefit. We are more prone to do it than men are, though men can do it, too.

As for whether women or men are better adapted to life in post-industrial society, Hanna has a point. But it depends a lot on the job and the situation. And when women have been disadvantaged by unfair circumstances, we’ve pushed for change to correct those circumstances.

We should do no less for men if they’re now in the same situation.

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

Eating Chinese

If my high-school senior brother saw the title of this blog, he would think it was about movies with zombies.

If some college guys I know saw it, they would think it was about Asian friends with benefits.

But it isn’t, and it isn’t.

Instead, let’s ingest some facts about China. No MSG. And the benefits are strictly intellectual: sorry, guys. 🙂

Everyone knows that China is important. With 1.3 billion people, it has the largest population of any country and the fastest-growing major economy. Here at school, we have over 100 Chinese students. Both students and professors are trying to learn more about China.

What you might not know is that China has many of the same problems as we do in the West. Racism, sexism, and suppression of diversity are all serious issues in China. And the establishment of China as a country has interesting parallels with the United States.

Ethnic Groups in China

Most Americans think that everyone in China is ethnically “Chinese,” but that’s not true. What we think of as Chinese are actually Han Chinese, who make up 92 percent of the Chinese population and 20 percent of the world’s population outside China. The Han are the largest ethnic group in the world. Their 92 percent majority status in China naturally makes them the dominant group in Chinese politics and culture.

The Han Chinese take their name from the Han dynasty, which ruled over an empire in the eastern part of what is now modern China from 206 BC to 220 AD. Modern China has 55 other recognized nationalities, many of which have second-class status. Those include Uyghurs and Hui, who are mostly Muslims; Tibetans, who live in a country that China annexed in 1951; and the Zhuang, who are close to the Han and tend to support the government.

Most of the powerful political figures in the last century wanted to unify China under the rule of the Han, even if they paid lip service to giving minorities their freedom.

In 1911, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, who had grown up in Japan and was influenced by Japanese nationalism, led a movement that overthrew the last Chinese empire. To replace it, he advocated the idea of Han minzu (Han nationalism) as the basis for a unified Chinese country. Later, when the Communists were trying to overthrow the government established by Dr. Sun, they promised independence to China’s minorities in order to gain their support. But when the Communists finally got into power, they broke those promises.

Marginalizing Minorities in China

The basic position of the Chinese government seems to be that the Han nationality and culture are “normal,” while minorities are portrayed as backward and uncivilized. In China, people’s identity papers state their official nationality — not Chinese, but Han, Hui, Uyghur, and so on. That automatically stamps non-Han people as “other.” It’s the same as if U.S. citizens’ passports didn’t identify them as American, but instead as Caucasian, African, Hispanic, and so on.

Movies supported by the Chinese government reinforce the idea that non-Han people and their cultures are inferior. One example, “Amazing Marriage Customs” (1992, not to be confused with a 1987 Hong Kong film that had the same title) portrayed China’s minorities as sexually primitive and uncivilized, in contrast to the advanced and civilized Han majority.

It’s interesting that here in the United States, there’s a parallel. Many politicians talk about representing “real Americans” against the invading barbarian hordes. They build their campaigns on hatred and fear of “the other.”

Marginalizing Women in China

Women get treatment similar to ethnic minorities, though the second-class status of women is a long-standing Confucian tradition in China. Traditionally, education was forbidden to women. Some women in southern China even developed their own writing system, called Nushu, so that they could write to and for each other. Mothers taught it secretly to their daughters.

The Chinese government reinforced the traditional subjugation of women with its view that women must be controlled and restricted, especially sexually. Interestingly, those restrictions apply to Han women but not to minority women, perhaps because of the stereotype that Chinese minorities are inherently uncivilized.

So What’s the Point?

The point is this. Chinese and Western societies evolved with completely different histories, cultures, and religions. But in spite of those differences, both suffer from sexism, racism, exclusion, stereotyping, and prejudice. It suggests that those problems are natural tendencies of human society. They are the “equilibrium level” to which our societies fall unless we constantly strive to make them better, fairer, more compassionate and rational.

It doesn’t mean we should give up. But it means that whether we live in the United States or China, in Massachusetts or Kentucky or Ontario or Saudi Arabia, we have to keep working for compassion and social justice. We have to keep fighting against stereotyping and prejudice. Human nature makes it an uphill battle, but we only lose the battle if we stop fighting.

The battle can never be won permanently. But it can be won a single day at a time, a single person at a time, and a single act of kindness at a time. That’s what we can do.


P.S. A Chinese friend at school read this blog and said she thought that China was making real progress on human and minority rights, even if it’s slower than anyone wants. I want to make it clear that I’m not saying Han Chinese are “bad” or anything like that. They’ve done what majorities normally do, and it takes time to recognize how it affects other groups. Here in the United States, whites had an overwhelming majority for over 200 years, and we treated other groups pretty badly. Eventually, we realized the injustices we had committed. We started trying to set things straight, and we’re still working on it! So I guess that we should be as patient and understanding with China as we are with ourselves. As long as they are trying to improve human and minority rights, they are on the right path.

P.P.S. If you agree or disagree with something on this blog, please don’t just talk to me after class. Leave a comment! xoxo 🙂

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

Virgins No More

I hate to disappoint you, but this blog article isn’t about my sex life.

But am I a virgin? It’s not about that, either.

It’s about rejecting the question, and with it, rejecting the whole concept of “virginity.”

Virgins vs. Sluts

In my high school, we had the virgins and the “sluts.” Both we and the guys were quick to apply the “slut” label. The virgins were considered better than the sluts, though there wasn’t really anything wrong with most of the girls we labeled as sluts.* And a lot of us virgins actually weren’t.

So “virgin = good” and “slut = bad.” But notice what those two labels have in common: they both define women by their sexuality, as if it’s the only important thing about them. As Jessica Valenti points out in her book The Purity Myth, the virgin and slut labels are just different sides of the same dehumanizing stereotype.

In researching her book, Jessica found that the idea of virginity is confused. I agree with her that it’s confused, but I think it’s mainly just stupid. The idea of virginity is that a woman shouldn’t have sexual intercourse. She can do anything else, but not that one thing. It’s so that on her wedding night, she will be “pure” for her husband.

Some girls even go to “purity  balls,” escorted by their fathers. (Am I the only person who thinks that there’s an incestuous subtext going on there?) The fathers vow to protect their daughters’ “purity” while the girls promise to stay virgins until marriage.

Excuse me, but what century is this again? It sure doesn’t sound like the 21st century. Maybe the 10th century.

“Pure”? Never mind if a woman is intelligent, loving, kind, honest, and faithful. What we want to know is if she’s done the deed. If she hasn’t done it, then she can be as sneaky, spiteful, and dishonest as she wants. She’s a virgin, so her sexual value is intact. And after all, what other kind of value could a woman have?

Oh, please.

The Idea of Virginity is Obsolete

The idea of virginity made a kind of misogynistic sense in a patriarchal society where women were considered property and had no legal rights. It doesn’t make sense anymore.

In a patriarchal society, if a man acquires a wife (just like he might buy a horse), he wants to be sure that any children are his own. So a woman’s “value” increases if she hasn’t had sexual intercourse.

In a more enlightened society, where women are recognized as people and have rights, that concept makes no sense at all.

It seems strange that sex abstinence programs, pornography, and virginity are just different expressions of the same oppressive idea, but they are. They all define women solely as sex objects, dehumanizing us and ignoring the fact that we are people.

So am I a virgin?

Here’s my answer: I am a kind, loving, smart, educated woman. Deal with it.


*In her book The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine explains that spreading vicious gossip about rivals is one way that teen girls compete. Chapter 2 of her book, “The Teen Girl Brain,” made me laugh because it described my high school years so accurately.

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

Smart Guys, Bad Girls, Atheists, and “Isms”

It’s not as exciting as graduating from college (which I won’t do until next year), but this is my 100th blog article!

To celebrate the occasion, I decided to revisit some old blog articles that I think are good.

When I first started writing my blog, I wasn’t sure what to put in it or what style to use. Did I want it to be chatty? Funny? Sexy? Informative? Thoughtful?

I decided to make it all of them. That’s why it’s never been as consistent as some other blogs that are always about the same thing, such as school, fashion, politics, news, TV, or religion. And I never wanted it to be just about my life, which is interesting to me but is probably not that interesting to anyone else.

Here are the Rinth Ramblings that I like best:

Are Men Smarter Than Women?

Partly humorous and partly serious, this talks about the differences between how women and men think. It also points out the flaw in believing that either sex is “superior” to the other.

Why Atheists Love Breasts

This was my first blog article that got a lot of attention. Like the one about women and men, it was funny but it also talks about some serious issues. And yes, I picked the title to see if it would get a lot of people to read the article. It did.

Bad Girls Go Everywhere

This talks about the challenges of growing up with the stereotype of the “good girl,” who is pretty, obedient, and at least pretends to be stupid. It was inspired by an interview with Rachel Simmons, director of the Girls Leadership Institute and author of The Curse of the Good Girl.

The Mother of All Isms: “Label-Ism”

This talks about how labeling people can blind us to who they really are and what they’re really like. It was inspired by a speech at our school’s convocation about inequality and the importance of accepting others.

Don’t Outlaw Diet Coke

This article won an award as one of the “Top 100 Neuroscience Blogs.” I wrote it after midnight on a Friday night when I drank too much Diet Coke. It explains why Diet Coke is so yummy.

Libertarianism Isn’t Free

This explains what I think is wrong with the political viewpoint of libertarianism. This article also got a lot of attention, but more important, I’m very proud of it. People don’t have to agree with it, of course, but it makes some serious arguments.

Seven Questions for Anne Fadiman

I wrote several articles about Anne Fadiman and her wonderful book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. This article gives seven questions that I wanted to ask her when she spoke on campus.

Five Things That I’ve Learned

This explains some of the most important things I’ve learned about life. I can’t say that I always follow my own advice, but I try.

How to Help Haitian Earthquake Victims

I wrote two blogs about how to help survivors the the terrible earthquake in Haiti. There’s nothing special about these articles except that they might have helped encourage people to donate. But that’s pretty important.

Danger Ahead on “Gossip Girl”?

This one is about my favorite TV show, so it’s not profound or important. But in this article I had a chance to tell people about, a Web site that my friend Shari Weiss uses to provide news about the best TV dramas, including of course “Gossip Girl.”

My Secret for Good Grades

None of what I say in this article is very surprising, but some people told me it helped them. So that’s a big plus!

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.