gender, language, politics

Yum, a Fly!

Your riddle for today:


What is at once the most contemptible, loathsome, and yet invisible creature on earth?


The nine-headed hydra? No.

A “hardened Democrat”? No again.


Give up? The answer is, as it has always been … an old woman.


For many people, women are tolerable (in certain functions) as long as they are young and nubile. Old men are distinguished and accomplished. As Cassius says, in Julius Caesar, to the other conspirators, discussing who should be invited to take part in their conspiracy:


But what of Cicero? Shall we sound him?

I think he will stand very strong with us.


Another conspirator chimes in:


O let us have him, for his silver hairs

Will purchase us a good opinion.
But a woman’s silver hairs will purchase nothing, which is one reason why so many women in prominent roles in politics, entertainment, and the news media, go blond. Blond good, gray bad.


Over the past half century American society has been gradually disentangling itself from the biases that formerly plagued it around race, social class, and foreign birth. Even misogyny is not what it used to be. But combined with ageism, it is still going strong. And curiously, even as it flourishes, like its targets, it remains invisible.


It gains respectability, like so many other dubious propositions, from its longevity and universality. While there exist cultures that esteem the elderly (sometimes even including women), modern Western societies are not among them. Old women are useless, doddering, and pathetic – when they are not deadly, like witches. The achievement of literacy has made old women’s situation worse. When the ideas of the past were considered valuable, old women played the essential role of transmitting the lore of the past to the younger generation. Hence fairy tales, myths, and other orally handed down forms of knowledge were the domain of elderly women, and elderly women were valued. But when literacy replaced reverence for old ideas with respect for new knowledge, old women lost their worth, since what they had usefully transmitted and thus kept their cultures alive and vital became “old wives’ tales.”


So old women are silly geese and worse in folk culture. Their lives become disposable, their deaths risible.


There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.

I don’t know why she swallowed the fly.

Perhaps she’ll die.


There was an old lady who swallowed a spider.

Imagine a spider crawling inside her!

She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.

I don’t know why she swallowed the fly.

Perhaps she’ll die.


She goes on to swallow a bird, a cat, a dog, and finally:


There was an old lady who swallowed a horse.

She died, of course.


If you, like me, are a female of a certain age, you may find this less funny than your grandchildren do. (The young never believe they will someday be old.)


If these prejudices were confined to the realm of fiction, maybe I could be accused of mere hypersensitivity. But prejudices do not exist purely in fiction: they exist in fiction because they exist in reality, and one strengthens and justifies the other. And when the typical recipients of such pieces of folk wisdom are children, their ability to instill prejudices like this is stronger: children are not yet old enough to possess the power and the logical capacity to refute them.


Consider the case of the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi. While congressional leadership has for a long time been an object of disrespect, Pelosi has been the object of extraordinary amounts of often personal vilification. She herself publicly blames her effectiveness; others suggest that her reputation (among Republicans, of course, but remarkably, many members of her own party as well) comes from her “liberalism” and her coming from that den of evil, San Francisco (as she does). Maybe those contribute, but I think the real though unspoken reason is the one-two punch of ageism and sexism.


While both are important individually in our judgments of ourselves and others, combined they are truly lethal. Nor is Pelosi the only example of the powerful older woman who attracts irrational loathing. Here’s another: Hillary Clinton.


Like Pelosi, Clinton is a hated figure not only to Republicans, but also to astonishingly many Democrats of all genders. Both Democrats and Republicans find reasons to revile her. Superficially their loathing may sound reasonable: she is corrupt; she was an “enabler” of her husband’s adulteries; she was a “flawed” candidate. But these complaints are either politically irrelevant or could be made against practically any politician, and the fact that they are all still being made against Clinton a year after she lost (or, better, “lost”) in a peculiar election is highly anomalous and, as long as we insist on adhering to comfortable explanations, inexplicable. Clinton is both too “liberal” for party right-wingers and too “centrist” for the Bernie Bros. She is, like Pelosi, too something for too many people. Too what, exactly?


Too old…and too female. Women are always “too” something: too apologetic; too greedy; too ambitious. So when they rise to positions of power and influence (or even threaten to) they become too threatening. And if they are old as well as female, denigrating and despising them is all too easy, as it fits neatly into those preexisting prejudices we internalized so long ago that they have become conventional wisdom, not even requiring explicit expression.


The treatment of Clinton and Pelosi is in stark contrast to the treatment of males in similar positions. Clinton is still reviled by both parties a year after the election, although normally most Americans cannot even name the loser at that remove. And according to a significant amount of media obsession, discussion is already swirling around Pelosi’s replacement, particularly if the Democrats take the House in the midterm elections. This became Topic One after the recent special election in western Pennsylvania, which Democrat (better, “Republocrat”) Conor Lamb narrowly won. Lamb made voting against Pelosi a central point of his campaign, along with laxity on guns and severity on abortion. It is highly unusual for voters to pay much attention to House leadership, so it would normally be hard to explain why ousting Pelosi is so popular.


We hear allegedly reasonable complaints. Pelosi doesn’t have ideas; she lacks a coherent theory. That must be because she is so very old (she is 77): younger members are just bursting with political creativity. For instance, the man most mentioned to replace her, Democratic whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), a babe in arms at 78. (It’s a scientific fact: a 78-year-old man is younger than a 77-year-old woman.) And her Republican counterpart, Paul Ryan, is full of useful and desirable options.

But even if we take these comparisons as somehow valid, they don’t make sense. Whether as party Leader or House Speaker, Pelosi’s job is not to have ideas. (And try to list those House members of either party who have them. I can think, offhand, of only two: Adam Schiff and Jackie Speier, both, I am proud to say, Californians. Feel free to make your own nominations, but it won’t be easy.) The Leader’s or Speaker’s job is more mundane but arguably more important: to raise money for candidates, to count votes, and to keep party members on track to vote properly. All of these Pelosi has done superbly over a long time, and Democrats who owe their elections to her tireless fund-raising are ingrates. (I wonder how much of Lamb’s victory is due to Pelosi’s fund-raising.) As the poet sings, Non omnia possumus omnes, we can’t all do everything.


The real reason for the irrational and vicious treatment of both Pelosi and Clinton has to be the one-two punch of ageism plus misogyny. Perhaps you feel that they have it coming. Old granny ladies should take to their rocking chairs and drop their ambitions. But you don’t have to be the House Democratic Leader or a former senator, first lady, and Presidential candidate to receive similar condescension.


Recently I was looking for an attorney. Friends very kindly contacted their friend, who contacted his friend, who contacted an attorney, who suggested a man in Berkeley and briefly explained my situation to him.


I then wrote him a letter of inquiry, and he responded. He knew nothing about me other than that I was a retired professor looking for an attorney. His partial response to my email is as follows:


[I]f you can bear to leave the place [my condo], find out how much it is worth, add 16%-20%, and offer to sell for that amount. They are anxious to get rid of you, they’ll save 7%-8% in real estate commissions and closing costs, and you know they are the kind of people who are going to make a counter-offer and try to negotiate a lower price.


“They” are the neighbors against whom (as he knew) I would be litigating. There is absolutely no reason I would ever sell to them, still less that I might want to leave. In a return email I corrected his assumptions, and he replied, again in part:


Invest the money [from the sale] and use that and your pension and Social Security to move into an Assisted Living project. You want to make that move while you are still walking on your own. It’s much harder to get into one after you’re using a wheelchair or walker. And it’ll give you a building full of new neighbors, and with adult supervision to restrain jerks, like your current neighbors.


I am sure he meant well, but I remain astonished at the inappropriateness of his advice. (My high school Latin teacher liked to point out that well-meaning people were the most dangerous.) I am certain he would not have made it if I were younger, and I suspect he would not if I had been an older man. But because he knew that I was an older woman, he felt he was behaving professionally and compassionately by offering advice that, besides being well beyond his professional capacity and not asked for, made the condescending and demeaning assumption that I was decrepit and demented.   (I am reasonably crepit and mented.) We old ladies don’t always need a Boy Scout to get across the street.


Well, you may demur, stereotypes often form around a “grain of truth.” Maybe old women dither, while men of similar ages still enjoy strong cognitive capacities.


But an op-ed by Gail Collins suggests something else. Collins discusses a recent trash-talk exchange between Trump and Biden about who could “take [the other] behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.” Trump is currently 71 (in chronological age) and Biden 75, but both are still situated in high school.


Both Pelosi and Clinton have, in their long careers, made public statements that they came to regret. But neither has ever suggested taking an adversary down with their fists. You might think that by the time a man is in his 70s, his testosterone levels have declined commensurately with a rise in I.Q . But you would be wrong. To make things scarier still, Trump has just named a similarly pugnacious male as his national security adviser. The interchange Collins describes constitutes one more reason to put women (of any age) permanently in control of everything.


Over the past half century Americans have made impressive progress in undoing noxious stereotypes: the racist and xenophobic jokes that were publicly ubiquitous in my youth have gone into well-deserved hibernation, along with overt anti-Semitism. Of course these stereotypes have not vanished from the American psyche, but (as events like Charlottesville keep reminding us) merely gone underground. But even that is progress.


Yet misogyny and ageism thrive, unnoticed and uncorrected. #MeToo is making progress against some forms of the former, but there is plenty of backlash – as the Pelosi attacks illustrate. #MeToo is mostly about younger and more nubile women, whom media discussion suggests deserve our sympathy. Possibly some of the anti-Clinton and anti-Pelosi venom are transferences from (momentarily) less acceptable expressions of loathing towards all women.


Granny ladies of the world unite! You have nothing to lose – nothing at all!