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An open letter to Peggy O’Donnell

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | February 13, 2016

Dear Peggy: I want first to express my admiration for your recent post. It was eloquent and to the point, and everything you said was well worth saying.

But there was also a lot in your post that troubled me, as an older woman and a feminist, a great deal. I cannot let these arguments go without comment.

Starting at the beginning: Madeleine Albright did not “scold” anyone. Your interpretation of her comment is sexist per se. Women’s utterances are all too prone to be over-interpreted: others decide what a woman is to mean. This prevalent behavior leaves women powerless because control of language is power and losing control of the meaning of your language deprives you of power.

Albright intended her remark as encouragement (see her op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times), not as “scolding” or “shaming.” I find it easy to read that way.

Yes, Albright is an older woman (as am I). I find your condescension toward older women, especially feminists, troubling. There is a name for that, and that name is “ageism.” Ageism is no more acceptable than sexism. Possibly it is worse – for the ageist. You need to realize that, some day, if you are lucky, you too will be old. Unless members of your generation take up the fight against ageism, or at least refrain from contributing to ageist doctrine, you will be the butt of young people’s anger and condescension. This is especially true for women: ageism and sexism go hand in hand.

There are other reasons why you might want to rethink some of your remarks. You are a history student: you should be aware of history, in this case, recent women’s history. Yes, it is true that at the dawn of the modern women’s movement, too little attention was paid to race and class. This single-mindedness is typical of revolutions at their start: you concentrate on your own issues to the exclusion of others. Only thus can you begin to make progress, and trust me, it wasn’t easy. Later, and without question more recently, feminists have worked on race- and class-related issues. We understand that any sort of Othering damages all of us.

But just as a minor point: you complain that “feminism” has never dealt with racism. (And as I just pointed out, it has and does.) But how much attention has the civil rights movement given to women’s empowerment? Surely that is just as important, but overlooked.

Here’s something else to contemplate. You are a graduate student in a humanities department. As such, you have every right to expect that, if you do well (as you surely will), you will be able to compete for a university job on an equal footing with anyone else with a history Ph.D. And so you should! But it was not always thus.

When I came to Berkeley in 1972, there were just about 10 tenured women in an L & S faculty of around 1,000, most tenured. (I was the eleventh.) It was perfectly legal and acceptable for a department chair to say, as one did (not, thankfully, the chair of my department!), “I would never hire a 29-year-old woman with tenure!”

Today that remark would be illegal, and if it emerged, its speaker would receive the opprobrium that he deserved. Today, you stand as good a chance as a man to secure a tenure-track position at any major research university (yes, I know, that’s not too good. But still). How did this change come about? Because those old crones you despise fought for it – tenaciously and brilliantly – and often incurred some risk to their own careers in the process. The fact that you are here to write your excellent post is due to the efforts of the very women you are quick to disparage.

I gather that many young women feel that feminism has run its course. But not so fast! If a Republican is elected President in 2016, what do you think will happen to young women’s reproductive rights, not just abortion but contraception. It is important to elect the more electable candidate, who I still believe is Clinton.

And even though you don’t find women’s interests especially enthralling, with a Republican Congress, they may well become fighting issues. Women will need a president who has more than a passing interest in our rights. While I am sure Sanders feels sympathy with them, based on what he has said, and more crucially has not said, I don’t feel they are vitally important for him – not things he would go to the mat for. I am very sympathetic to those concerns about which Sanders has eloquently spoken, but I worry about the many things he has had virtually nothing to say about, women’s rights being just one.

History is not, as you say, “catching up with [my] generation of feminists.” History is my generation of feminists, and as a historian you would do well to understand this.



Comments to “An open letter to Peggy O’Donnell

  1. I don’t consider myself a feminist, but I do think that, quite sadly, gender discrimination is still fairly common in our society. The difference between now and 20 to 30 years ago is that discrimination takes place more subtly nowadays.

    For example, in law, there is a unspoken rule that if someone can’t make partner at a firm after a certain number of years, he or she will never become one. As a result, many female lawyers have to delay their pregnancy or shorten their maternity leaves. In engineering, a field heavily dominated by males, women are often made fun of. I once heard someone openly joke that his female boss’s frustration towards work was because of her menstrual pain.

    This type of sexist comments and innuendos should not be tolerated. As a millennial, I do not agree that economic issues are more important than women’s rights; they are equally important, and as Anthony suggested above, should be the top priority.

  2. Dear Ms. Lakoff: You raise a good point about Bernie Sanders. It is quite possible that he will not go to the mat for women’s rights. However, Mr. Sanders has demonstrated in his career that he will go to the mat for legislation he believes is important. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton has shown she will not go to the mat for anything other than advancing her own career and circumstances. Perhaps that is why people, including women, rightfully do not wish to entrust their future to her not-so-tender hands.

    Robert Angell

  3. Prof. Lakoff, while I have great respect for many of your posts in the past, I think you may have been overly harsh in this post.

    One major consideration you overlooked was that Hillary’s most important sponsor is Bill “I Never Had Sex With That Woman,” who most viciously attacked women’s rights in the Oval Office. But then, no one seems to care enough about that to urge her to kick him out of her life so that she can most truly earn credit for defending and protecting Women’s Rights at the highest level.

    You also overlooked the fact that Madeleine Albright was one of her generation of female leaders who have still failed to get the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment ratified, resulting in never-ending acts of inequality against our newest generations of women.

    My greatest motivation for writing this is that I have two wonderful granddaughters, 3 and 6 years old, and my greatest regret is that our older generations, especially including mine, have totally failed to produce and perpetuate an acceptable long-term quality of life for all of our newest and future generations. We thought we had produced civil rights in the ’60s, but we failed to perpetuate them.

    I ask you to challenge Hillary to make these commitments her highest priority.

    • P.S. – Bill Clinton’s “misstatement” attack against Obama today once again proves him to be Trump’s role model. Bill has already been a role model to Trump when it comes to attacking Women’s Rights.

      Once again, I respectfully request that Hillary kick Bill out of her life, it doesn’t help her campaign to continue to use him as her sponsor.

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