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Investigating Crashes and Crises as if Women Mattered
By Cynthia Enloe
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Who Is "Taken Seriously"?
Let me start with a confession: I spent a long time—too long—not taking women seriously. That means I did not think I would gain anything analytically by paying close attention to women. I did not think that any explanation I could offer would be strengthened by my listening to women, observing women, or taking into explicit account the ideas and experiences of women. Furthermore, back then I did not think I would significantly deepen my understanding of men's ideas, men's decisions, and men's actions by taking women seriously.
Simply being a woman is no guarantee that you will take women seriously. In fact, as a woman, one might even imagine that one should avoid showing analytical interest in women so as not to be painted by others with a damning "feminine" brush.
For my doctorate, I chose to study the interplay of ethnicity and education politics in postcolonial, postwar Malaysia. This was during the 1960s. Malaysia was a country that only recently had gained independence from Britain and had come out of a prolonged civil war. Before leaving Berkeley, and then as I was settling into Kuala Lumpur, I read everything I could about Malaysian history and culture, about life on rubber plantations, about the British colonial strategy of co-opting traditional Malay sultans, about the Japanese wartime occupation, about both the insurgents and the Malaysian and British counterinsurgents during the years of civil war from the 1950s to the 1960s. I read novels, memoirs, ethnographies, political science studies, government reports, histories, and old newspapers. Most were authored by men. I scarcely noticed. Virtually all the featured actors portrayed in the books and articles were male. There were a handful of women characters in the novels, but many of them turned out to be the Malay mistresses of British colonial men. A notable exception were the more prominent women characters in Han Suyin's novel And the Rain My Drink. Back then, I hardly paused to reflect on the oddity of these all-male casts of characters.
There was so much to absorb, I thought, such complex dynamics to grapple with. There were class differences—among the British expatriates, among the multiethnic Malaysians, and within each of Malaysia's three most prominent ethnic communities, the Malays, the Chinese, and the Tamils. Then there were the sources of interethnic mistrust to comprehend (mistrust fueled by the fact that each of the ethnic communities had its own daily newspaper, not only written in a distinct language but also published in a distinct script). On top of this were the complex and shifting political party alliances and electoral strategies, federal-state tensions, and multiple school systems, as well as the ups and downs of the rubber, palm oil, and tin industries. All together, the story seemed complicated enough. There was no room on my intellectual plate to add questions about gender. And, I imagined, to be taken seriously in my new academic career, I did not need to add such questions.
Back then, that is, investigating women's lives and the workings of masculinities and femininities seemed unlikely to tell me anything I really needed to know about British colonial rule, the Japanese wartime occupation, political economies, ethnic Chinese Malaysians' support for the guerrilla insurgency, the assumptions underpinning the authorities' counterinsurgency strategies, how wartime experiences were shaping postwar 1960s societal relationships, or even about how education policies were fueling the rising communal tensions. I was admitted to Kuala Lumpur's exclusive Selangor Club because I fit into the club's desirable expatriate category of "a woman without a husband in the country"—a membership I sought so that I could take male civil servants to lunch in the capital and sign for the bill without embarrassing them. I joined the all-women's (mostly Chinese and Indian) local field hockey team. I had Malaysian women colleagues at the University of Malaya. I became aware that many male officials talked to me precisely because they did not take seriously a twenty-six-year-old "girl" in sandals and a sleeveless cotton dress. Despite all this, the only people I chose to interview were men—male teachers, male civil servants, male politicians.
And because I did not take women seriously, I did not see these men as men; thus I did not try to investigate their diverse masculinities or the political consequences of their diverse masculinities. It was not as if I had made a conscious choice to interview only men. It just seemed normal.
It was only later, when I became a feminist, that I began to question this seductively powerful adjective, normal, the twin brother of natural. It was only later that I tallied up all that I had missed owing to my narrow vision, my shrunken curiosity. It was only later, too, after I had begun to ask feminist questions, that I realized my own gender-ignorant understanding of Malaysia's war and postwar eras was not simply incomplete; it was unreliable. Today, despite the wealth of feminist research and writing that has come out of Malaysia in recent years, there is yet to be written a thorough feminist analysis of the international politics of rubber (think Dunlop) or of the Malaysian armed guerrilla conflict of 1948–1960—and of its lingering postwar gendered consequences. So because of our failing to take women seriously, we still do not know exactly what we have missed in our understanding of the emergent international political economy and of the Malaysian civil war and its long aftermath.
Not taking women seriously, not paying close attention to the subtle workings of gender, is not, however, simply a characteristic of the "bad old days." It characterizes most contemporary studies of economy, culture, society, and politics. We all are acutely aware that most social commentators, contractors, and policy makers still do not think deeply about women unless they are pushed to do it. And because most of these commentators do not take women seriously, they do not feel compelled to dig deeply into the often fraught dynamics of masculinities: that is, as a result of not taking women seriously, they do not see men as men.
It may not be mere coincidence, then, that on all three of the major American cable news channels—CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC—men (mostly white men) make up 65 percent or more of the "expert" guests chosen to appear on their prime-time news shows to discuss political issues. And in Britain too, feminist researchers monitoring nine of Britain's national newspapers found a similar gendered pattern: of the "experts" directly quoted in these influential papers' front-page stories, 76 percent were men; only 24 percent were women. Furthermore, as the British researchers from Women in Journalism found, women were most likely to be directly quoted in a newspaper account when they could be positioned by the journalists as victims. That is, these American and British media producers and editors see men as the ones best equipped to provide serious analysis of political questions facing their countries.
We need to think collectively about what rewards are handed out for not taking women seriously—in research projects, in policy debates, in media discussions of the pressing issues of the day. This question has brought me to think a lot about the adverb seriously. To be taken seriously is a major reward that can be bestowed on a person. Sometimes the laurel bestowed is called gravitas. Few women are said by the architects of cultural pyramids to possess gravitas. Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag were admired for possessing gravitas. But, then, often those generous bestowers treated both women as honorary men.
Conversely, as caveat or as punishment, seriousness can be withheld. During the 2012 phase of the uprising in Syria, a journalist briefly mentioned the only woman within the elite inner circle around Syria's besieged authoritarian ruler Bashar al-Assad. This was vice president Najah al-Attar. Would she be a possible compromise candidate, various external observers were wondering, to replace President Assad? No, though she was in the regime's inner circle, she was deemed by these diplomatic calculators to lack gravitas. To be taken seriously does not mean to be liked or to be admired. Rather, to be taken seriously means to be listened to, to be carefully responded to, to have one's ideas and actions thoughtfully weighed. It means that what one does or thinks matters—that is, significant consequences flow from it.
Propping up the phrase taken seriously is the presumption that one becomes worthy of being taken seriously if one is judged to be adult, rational, and able to wield meaningful influence. Those whose ideas are labeled "trivial" or "innocent" or "juvenile" or "shallow" or "silly" or "lightweight" or "pedestrian" will not be taken seriously. Those whose influence is "passing" or "parochial" will not be taken seriously. They will be dismissed. Their ideas will not need to be taken into account "when the chips are down"—that is, when the likely consequences are important, when "it matters." At best, if not taken seriously, these people will be listened to only later—that is, after the crisis has passed, after the crucial decisions have been made, when it no longer matters: after the new constitution is written, after the waters have receded, after the banks have been recapitalized, after the candidate lists have been finalized, after the electoral campaign funds have been raised.
The twenty-five women who in 1985 founded an American organization to raise money for those women candidates who would run on the Democratic ticket and who would support women's reproductive rights decided to name their new group "EMILY's List." Emily was not the name of a wealthy woman donor. EMILY, the founders explained, stands for: "Early Money Is Like Yeast." That is, these feminist strategists calculated, candidates who can raise money early in the prolonged, expensive American campaign season are the ones political insiders will take seriously. Thus to be taken seriously in America's money-driven electoral politics, women would have to create a mechanism with which to raise that early money. Otherwise, their candidacies would be dismissed by power brokers as inconsequential.
At worst, people and their ideas that are not taken seriously will not be listened to at all, not now, not later. Instead, they will be exposed to ridicule. Their ideas will be called soft or naive or irrelevant or childish. It is not happenstance that conventionally minded people imagine most of these dismissive adjectives to be closely associated with the patriarchal notion of femininity. A gender-smart observer knows that in any masculinity-privileging society a person or an idea that can be feminized is a person or an idea that can be easily trivialized, dismissed. This provides an incentive for some men to try to feminize their male rivals. Feminization is a potent weapon in the masculinized contest between men over who will be taken seriously. If one is not attentive to the cultural politics of femininity, in other words, it is hard to make sense of the politics of diverse masculinities and the gendered rivalries between men.
Who is taken seriously and by whom? These are not minor questions. The answers carry consequences, not only for the person who is dismissed but also for the hierarchies of influence, for the quality of the entire public conversation, and ultimately for the decisions that flow out of that conversation. If what is taken seriously is defined too narrowly—for instance, if feminist questions and feminist findings are dismissed as not serious—then the results can be inadequate explanations, poor decisions, flawed policies, failed efforts, and perpetuated injustices.
Most of us hope that we will be taken seriously. Yet, like beauty, seriousness is in the eye of the beholder. It is a status bestowed by someone else. Therefore, talking about being taken seriously in the passive tense is dangerous: it risks leaving the bestower invisible, unaccountable. You can try your best to be taken seriously, but it will be others who decide whether they will take you and your ideas seriously. This is why being taken seriously is held out as an inducement and reward—and is withheld as punishment. Rewards, inducements, and punishments, of course, shape behavior.
This is one of the reasons that one may feel "brave" when one insists on making women the focus of a doctoral dissertation, even though none of one's faculty advisors take questions of masculinity or femininity seriously in their own research or teaching. Those same well-meaning advisors may try to persuade the student that it would be "better for your career"—that is, one will be taken more seriously by future employers and colleagues—if instead one's research focused on, say, class relations in the copper industry or on the history of Twitter (each of which is, of course, presumably ungendered). Similarly, an ambitious journalist may steer away from proposing to her or his editor an in-depth investigation of factory women's lives or the workings of rival masculinities inside big banks. Better, the ambitious reporter calculates, to ask that editor—by whom one hopes to be seen as a serious journalist—if one can cover a territorial dispute or an oil drilling enterprise (again, each allegedly ungendered). Likewise, many elected women legislators resist being assigned to legislative committees that work on "women's issues." It is hard enough, they determine, to be taken seriously as lawmakers when, as women, they are trying to gain influence in a male-dominated institution, without also being assigned to a committee that specializes in issues that most of the male legislators do not consider serious.
The same inducement, reward, and punishment regime operates in today's international organizations. Sheri Lynn Gibbings tells a revealing story. In 2003, she was working with and studying the New York–based women's advocacy groups that were the engines behind the United Nations Security Council's 2000 adoption of the groundbreaking UN Security Council Resolution 1325. This resolution requires all UN agencies and all UN member states to include women in peace negotiations and in all efforts to rebuild postconflict societies. The myriad impacts of armed violence on women living in war zones from East Timor to Congo and Afghanistan were thenceforth to be taken seriously by international and local actors. Moreover, according to 1325, women were not to be treated merely as victims in need of protection for which they should be silently grateful. Local women in war zones were instead to be treated by national and international authorities as thinkers, strategists, and decision makers.
As the savvy women advocates behind the historic resolution knew, the proof of the international pudding was going to be in the eating—in the instance of 1325, the proof was going to be in the elite-level and ground-level implementation of all the provisions of the resolution. These UN-focused women activists had done so much to provide the evidence for, to draft the content of, and to mobilize Security Council delegations' support for 1325. To bring the international decision making to this point, these feminist-informed activists inside and outside the UN (from Oxfam, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, as well as from within UNIFEM, which is now incorporated into the new major agency UN Women) had created the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security. In the wake of the historic passage of 1325, members of the NGO Working Group made their group's chief activity the monitoring of all agencies of the UN that should be implementing 1325's provisions to see if, in their daily actions, they indeed were taking the requirements of 1325 seriously. One of their monitoring devices was a monthly report on the UN's 1325-related actions, Mapping Women, Peace and Security in the UN Security Council. The objective was to provide evidence of agencies taking the provisions seriously or, to the contrary, of their trivializing or ignoring those provisions; in this way they would hold the feet of the Security Council's state delegates and of the UN Secretariat to the bureaucratic fire. It takes a lot of strategic thinking and labor-intensive action to ensure that people inside any complex organization actually do take their commitments seriously.
Excerpted from Seriously! by Cynthia Enloe. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
1. Who Is "Taken Seriously"?
2. Launching and Naming: Sexual Harassment and One Women’s-Studies Story
3. The Mundane Matters: Why Feminists Take Daily Life Seriously
4. DSK, Vikings, and the Smartest Guys: Masculinities in the Banking Crash of 2008
5. Women in Recession: Austerity and Misogyny
6. Militarism, Patriarchy, and Peace Movements: In Conversation with Cynthia Cockburn
7. Failing to Secure the Peace: Patriarchal Assumptions and Their Consequences for UN Operations in Haiti; A Conversation with Nadine Puechguirbal
8. Egyptian Women, Feminism, Revolutions: The Dinner Party
9. Conclusion: In the Eye of the Beholder