The Problem of Being a Familiar Problem

Dr. Lora Wildenthal 

News is novel. But hearing about women’s inequality to men isn’t new. So every time it appears as “news,” it’s hard for the meanings of this information to reach the minds of readers and listeners. Hearing about women’s inequality probably also elicits feelings of guilt in both men and women listeners, and where there is guilt, irritation is not far behind. Then comes contradiction (as if women’s inequality were erased if a data point could be contradicted in some way), and then comes shutting down. Women’s inequality is an old, old issue, and yet it is not fully audible, or only intermittently audible in our public arenas.

What may make women seem powerful is that we are ubiquitous, and we do talk (non-fiction Nobel Prizewinner Svetlana Alexievich confirms that women are far easier interview subjects than men.) Is the problem that claims of suffering are more convincing if they concern unfamiliar people?

Can it really be that the “woman card” serves as a silencing trump card? Do women hold so much power? So much that they can silence critics? If those critics are silenced—why? Is it because they themselves are embarrassed by what they want to say? We now have a nationwide syndrome of nastiness counting as honesty. Just as when people say “No offense, but…” not because they are concerned about giving offense, but because they want to vent their feelings without having to take responsibility for their statements. Can women silence anyone against those people’s own wills?

Do women hold so much power? Or do we hold little power? A news item, from its very first word or line, announces its choice of invoking one or the other possibility. (Oddly, there seems to be no third choice.) Turns of phrase announce that choice: For example, the common journalistic phrase “Feminists told us…” It works as rhetoric, but not as fact, for feminists haven’t been in the business of promising people that everything in life would work out perfectly if only… And as if feminists ever had the authority to check up on whether people obeyed their supposed proclamations. It’s an ugly image: Feminists as schoolmarms. The image is an example of the poison that seeps in when “woman” and “authority” combine. A feminist candidate for president is now indeed making campaign promises—this pushes all kinds of buttons. But it doesn’t give her a unique power, beyond the logic and evidence of her arguments.