I have long borne, as the evangelicals say, a “burden” for communicating leftism to non-leftists. This mood has driven the bulk of the public speaking I have done. One instance, transcripted below, was part of a panel discussion sponsored by a branch of the socialist group Solidarity. We were challenging the use of “Lady” to designate the female athletes at Middle Tennessee State University and at colleges in general. Of course, the intention was to use the main topic to highlight more basic social points. Given negative critical press leading up to the event, I tried in my lecture to build an argument “from the ground up” without presupposing a feminist orientation in my audience. Thanks, as always, for reading. (Note: The MTSU teams are collectively the “Raiders” or “Blue Raiders,” the females Lady Raiders.)
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I want to evaluate the claim that: the University’s use of the term “Lady Raiders” is an instance of sexist language; that it is anti-woman in some way—that it degrades or devalues women as a group relative to men as a group.
Now, the most obvious way in which the term might do this is in the way it is used to separate certain female athletes—on the basis of being female—from the male athletes. Of course, you can certainly separate things into groups without implying that one group is better than the other—but again, it is not the separation but the way in which it is made that is suspect.
On the one hand, since MTSU has both a women’s and men’s program for certain sports, there is sense in which there is a whole community of athletes who are all a part of the group we call “Blue Raiders.” For example, we know when we click to the website “goblueraiders.com,” it is going to link to all the teams we have, female and male alike. All are part of the collective “Raider” group.
When you take this group and proceed to divide it into two smaller groups (in this case, according to gender), that in itself may not pose a problem. But when you allow the first group to keep the basic name “Raiders,” while the second has to be set apart as some special kind of Raider (in this case a “Lady Raider”) within this larger group of athletes, I think a question is then raised. Now, perhaps the question can be answered in a way that deflects a charge of sexism, but it is nonetheless questionable.
To put the point another way: Even though they’re all “Raiders,” or members of that group, we’ve seen fit for whatever reason to qualify the membership of the women within that group, while there doesn’t strike us as being any need to do this for the men. The men get a name that suggests an identification with the whole group—they are ‘just Raiders’, and again, everyone in the program is some kind of “Raider”—but only in the special case of the women is there ever seen any need to specify what little subdivision of Raider they actually are.
Of course, many are going to respond that this is just a harmless, benign way of classifying the two teams—that it isn’t trying to suggest anything negative beyond this. But in co-ed programs across the country, it is always this particular benign, harmless way of distinguishing the two teams, and never the reverse. It is always the men who end up as “just ‘Team Name-x’,” and the women always get to be the lady version of it.
So MTSU is just one instance of a broad cultural practice. And while it may not strike us right away as an offensive practice, it should strike us as a quite peculiar one. For instance (to steal a thought experiment motif from Noam Chomsky), if we were Martian anthropologists, looking down on this cultural pattern for the first time, we would be puzzled by it—and we would demand some special explanation for the thing. We wouldn’t dismiss it as meaning nothing, in other words. We would suspect that something deeper— for good or for bad—is at work behind it.
My view is that there is something deeper at work behind names like “The Lady Raiders” and that we have reason to suspect that this ‘something’ is a negative thing.
Part of my reasoning for this is that very often when we use words (like “Lady”) to qualify the membership of somebody within a bigger group, we do it to say something negative about the thing we are qualifying.
For an extended example of this: I was once in a conversation with a very politically conservative man who was applauding the fact that (according to him) “everyone” in Texas is a political conservative. So in response, I pointed out a man we both know of who is very left-wing, very radical politically, who lives in Texas; and I said, “Well, what about that guy?” And the guy replied, “Well, he doesn’t count: He’s an Austin-Texan.” (Austin being a liberal hornet’s nest, supposedly, surrounded by a sea of conservative belief.)
So clearly, the conservative guy added this little qualification of “Austin” to suggest that the other guy wasn’t a ‘real’ Texan—a full and proper or authentic member of the broader group of Texans. The conservative guy wasn’t just trying to distinguish between two sub-groups of Texans for benign classification purposes; he was suggesting that one group is more valuable or important or desirable than the other.
He was saying, in other words, that the other guy’s membership in the bigger group of Texans is a limited membership: He’s sort of a Texan, but a kind of outsider at the same time.
And finally, the terminology here suggests that whatever membership an Austin-Texan has in the bigger group is just derivative of somebody else’s membership. Because clearly, you can’t have an Austin-Texan without having Texans; the Austin-Texan needs the bigger group to have his own identity as a “partial” Texan. But you can have Texans whether or not you have any Austin-Texans.
You see the same thing with the concept of “Lady Raiders”: If you dropped the Lady Raiders from the school, the other Raiders could go on like they always have—without much confusion to be expected; but if you dropped the men’s team from the school, there would be nothing left for the “Ladies” to be Ladies of. So there is a sense that the identity of the women’s team is just derived from the men’s identity, that it is conceptually “piggybacking” on the men.
So the point of this illustration is to suggest that a “Lady Raider” might be something like an “Austin-Texan”—and if it isn’t the same, we should be able to say why it isn’t, if we’re so sure.
Another good example is that of a “lady doctor.” Most people are clear that this phrase has negative or offensive connotations. Rare would be the doctor who, when asked if she is a “lady doctor,” would not be tempted to snap, “No, I’m just a doctor”; and rarer would be the observer who would be fail to find this response intelligible.
But I think its important to understand why it holds these negative connotations for us. My own feeling is that the phrase “lady doctor” probably means the same thing as “lady version of a doctor.” (I can’t prove that this is what it means—but I’m pretty sure that if you didn’t have a problem using the phrase “lady doctor,” you wouldn’t have a problem if “lady version of a doctor” were substituted for it—and that should tell us something.)
Clearly, “lady version of a doctor” means “lady version of a male doctor.” (If it didn’t, we wouldn’t need to add the “lady” in the first place; for what else are lady doctors being distinguished from if not the male ones?) But if “lady version of a doctor” means “lady version of a male doctor,” it follows that the component phrase “a doctor” is equated with “a male doctor.” Once more, males in the group rate a term of description that suggests identification with the entire group; male doctors get to be simply “doctors,” while females warrant the designation only in some special sense. The males’ status as doctor is allowed to speak for itself, while the females’ must be accompanied by a kind of explanation.
Finally, when you suggest that somebody is a “lady version of a doctor” you are suggesting that the woman is merely aspiring to the role—a role that a man is more “at home” within. So again, like the “Austin-Texan,” the woman is kind of a member of the group (of doctors), but her membership is a qualified, limited, conditional one.
I would add something to this: I would argue that a team name like “Lady Raiders” is actually more questionable than “lady doctor.” Think of it this way: Whereas doctors are scattered across various institutions, all of the Raider athletes are members of the same institution—MTSU, or the athletic program, the local community—however you want to skew it. In a sense, then, each one of them is working toward the same project—they are contributing something to the same athletic program. So when you add “lady” to the name in this case, then, in addition to implying that the women are not full members of the “Raider” group, it suggests that they make a lesser contribution to something, than the ‘fuller members’ can make. The contribution, then, becomes qualified, limited, and conditional. And if this is the case, then the most the “ladies” can hope to put into their role as “Raider” is to “help out” with what the other, “fuller members” are doing. The women are cast as helpmates or auxiliaries of the men when you use this kind of language.
(As a sidenote: I don’t believe many people consciously believe that the women contribute less. That isn’t the point. We have all heard heard very nasty, overt, intentionally malicious ways of insulting women (or any people) as a group. So if “Lady Raiders” is an instance of sexist language, it won’t be this kind of sexist language. However: If it is possible to insult somebody in very obvious and overt ways, then it is possible to insult them in more subtle ways also. And you can certainly insult somebody inadvertently. So it isn’t some crazy idea to think that there could be an instance of sexist language that doesn’t jump right out and grab everybody who sees it as sexist.)
So this does beg the question of: Just how do we decide whether something is sexist language or not? Is there some kind of “litmus test” for the subtler cases such as this?
Well, again, how we don’t do it is by just examining the intentions of the person who makes the statement. Very often, people want to defend offensive-sounding language by saying the speaker doesn’t intend it to be offensive—“they don’t mean it that way.” But since it is possible to insult someone without meaning to do it, we might have to look beyond the feelings of the speaker to figure out the real meaning (or implications) of what he or she is saying.
I suggested earlier that it is a very odd thing that you find female athletes singled out as “ladies” and never the reverse case, with the males singled out by name. So, one way to test whether the name “Lady Raiders” is a subtle instance of sexism is to imagine how we would react if the situation were reversed:
For instance, someone could open up a college, set up two basketball teams, call the women’s team simply the “Raiders” and the men’s team the “Male Raiders.” (It has been suggested that “Gentleman Raiders” is more obvious, but I don’t think it’s perfectly analogous—so we’ll say the “Male Raiders,” for lack of anything better.) If a representative of this school were to describe this program to us, as prospective students on a tour, and leave it at that, we would not just take this information in stride. Again, we would feel that some kind of explanation were in order.
We might ask the representative some questions for clarification: “Are you trying to highlight the women’s program for some reason?; Or, historically was this perhaps an all-women’s school that only got a men’s team much later?”
“Well, no,” the rep says. “This is just a benign distinction between two groups. What’s the problem with that?”
Unsatisfied by this answer, we might keep pressing the point: “Well, then, perhaps the program was set up by a private donor—who stipulated that the names had to be done in this way?”
“No. We’re just classifying two teams. People do it everywhere.”
In desperation we might ask: “Are you a socially progressive school?—Maybe you’ve been to a Solidarity teach-in and you have reversed the traditional way of naming teams in an effort to make up for a history of discrimination against women?”
(And so on and soforth….)
In short, if a school gave the women’s team the mascot name, pure and simple, and set the men apart by name as the designated male counterpart to this—it would blow people’s minds. Everyone would have the sense that there must be more to the story: The representative is either ill-informed about his own program, or he’s pretending not to notice the oddness of the thing for Public Relations purposes.
But while we would question why somebody would think to distinguish between the groups in this way— virtually nobody questions it when we set the women’s teams apart from the rest.
And so the point is that, I think, we have some explaining to do: If we feel it is more fitting and natural that men get to be Raiders and women get to be a special sub-species of Raider, while it would not seem as fitting to us that women could be the Raiders and men the special case—then Why? Again, this inconsistency doesn’t automatically mean that sexism is at work here—and I don’t think that the subtle sexisms are the kind of thing you can get an absolute proof for, the way you could with the very nasty, overt examples—But it increases the degree to which the “Lady Raiders” name becomes, again, questionable.
The final point I would like to suggest is the following: If there is such a thing as sexism in the world—that is, if there is a very widespread feeling in the culture that women are less valuable, or capable, or worthy of being taken seriously, than men—then, to the extent that this is the case, it becomes even harder to dismiss (what I have called) those “questionable” pieces of ‘gendered’ language—such as the “Lady Raiders”—than it would be if we lived in world in which there was no such thing as sexism.
Well, I believe that sexist, anti-woman, ideas and attitudes are well-rooted in this culture, but it would be hard to argue the point convincingly in a short span of time. But it’s somewhat simpler to show that women are an example of an “oppressed group.” That is, aside from what kind of ideas we have about women, it’s just a fact that as a group they do more poorly than men as a group, in terms of social welfare. We see this as soon as we divide men and women into groups, and look for patterns between them: By virtually any measure of wealth, power and status we could come up with, we would find that the women fell far behind the men. (For just two examples, 95% of corporate executives are male while almost 70% of poor people are female.) And as society turns over, as it reproduces or “re-peoples” itself over time, the imbalance in the relationships maintains itself. So either this is the Mother of All Coincidences or we have a social system which is someway biased against the women, relative to men. In a sense, it is the system which undervalues them—even apart from what the individuals within the system think about each other. And to put the point very (too) briefly, anytime we have a dominant social group and a subordinate group in this way, there emerge ideas about the oppressed group which suggest that they are less valuable than the rest. So it would be very odd if gender were some kind of exception; a preponderance of sexist, anti-woman ideas and attitudes is just what we would expect from a social system that looks like ours.
So in conclusion, again, I’m not “proving” anything here, but I hope this is suggestive:
We can safely assume that sexism is alive in our culture. And part of this is the idea that women are better at helping with things than at actually doing things. Because this is so, when we are confronted with a piece of language—like “the Lady Raiders”—which seems to suggest a derivative or auxiliary role for women (if you buy into what I’ve said)—We should pause before dismissing this piece of language as having nothing interesting to say about the culture that came up with it. Again, it requires an explanation. And a tradition of sexism is simply the most handy, available hypothesis we have. It is far easier to believe that the “Ladyfication” of women’s teams is just one more in a long, tradition of representations that devalue women. And if sexism is behind the name, then keeping the name validates that sexism and helps in its way to keep it going. And we should change it for that reason.