Problems with Names

In a couple of weeks our new Centre for Feminist Research will have our first conference, which is on Sexism. Our tagline is “sexism: a problem with a name.” You can probably hear the reference to Betty Friedan’s description of “the feminine mystique” as a problem without a name.

The conference is a starting point: I would argue that if feminism is to have a future in the academy, we need to name sexism, we need to give this problem its name; we need to revolt against sexism.

One of the pieces we read in preparation for this event was Marilyn Frye’s essay on “Sexism” from her extraordinary and important book, The Politics of Reality (1983). This book has been very important to me: I draw upon her arguments in my work on feminist killjoys. Marilyn Frye begins this book with a discussion of how oppression involves the requirement that you show signs of being happy with the situation in which you find yourself. As she puts it: “it is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful. If we comply, we signify our docility and our acquiescence in our situation” (2). To be oppressed requires you show signs of happiness, as signs of being adjusted or even well-adjusted As a result for Frye “anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous” (2). Smiling becomes compulsory, at least for those who have to demonstrate they have accommodated to a system that does not “really” accommodate them.

Frye begins the chapter on sexism with the following observation: “like most women coming to a feminist perception of themselves and the world, I was seeing sexism everywhere and trying to make it perceptible to others” (1984: 17). She suggests that making sexism “perceptible to others” becomes a project because many “would not see that what I declared to be sexist was sexist.”

I have been thinking about this: how when you describe something as sexist, you are often accused of projecting something (even projecting yourself) onto a situation. You might say, hey, that moment when the man standing next to me is assumed to the lecturer and I am not, that’s sexism. And someone else might say, “no it isn’t, take it easy, lighten up,” as if to say: it is just a coincidence; if you’d arrived at a different moment, things would have fallen differently. Sexism is often denied, because it is seen as a fault of perception; something is sexist because you perceive it that way: you perceive wrongly when you perceive a wrong. Making a feminist case thus requires we can show how sexism is a set of attitudes that are institutionalized, a pattern that is established through use, such that it can be reproduced almost independently of individual will. Cataloguing sexism – showing that pattern made out of the fabric of our lives – thus remains a crucial form of feminist activism.

We might begin with cataloguing our own experiences. I think one of the reasons the Everyday Sexism  is so important is how it reminds us that cataloguing of instances of sexism is a collective project. The project involves the creation of a space in which we can insert our own individual experiences of sexism, so that we show what we know: that this or that incident is not isolated but part of a social structure; that what’s happens to me, happens to others.  Laura Bates’s new book  Everyday Sexism (2014) demonstrates the importance of having a deposit system to show the scale of sexism. When there is a place to go with these experiences – and feminism is about giving women places to go – the accounts tend to come out: a “drip, drip” that becomes a flood. It is like a tap has been loosened, allowing what has been held back to flow. Feminism: the releasing of a pressure valve.

Feminism in giving you somewhere to go allows you to revisit where you have been. To sense something as violence is to make sense of a wrong. And that sense of injustice becomes energetic: feminism as the movement of consciousness, a movement to consciousness. We can become even more conscious of the world in this process of becoming conscious of injustices because actually we had been taught to over-look so much; we are taught not to notice what happens right in front of us.  I think that there is nothing more challenging and potentially world shattering than the recognition or consciousness of structure. Structures are reproduced by the very techniques that stop us from recognizing them.

When point out these structures, we become sore points, because you are pointing out something that gets in the way of how people occupy space. Note as well: when you point out sexism, you are often blocked. The message does not get through. In my work I have called these blockages “walls” (Ahmed 2012). In the academy, I come across the walls of sexism every day: whether through citational practices that repeatedly privilege work by men (particularly when it comes to defining a new field or object of study, feminist work that leads to field formation often disappears once a field is given form); whether it is how women who are not willing to participate in sexual banter get called “uptight,” whether it is in the expectation of who the lecturers are, of how they appear; whether it is in the constant stream of questions asked to female academics about how their work relates to this or that male theorist (see my post, “Making Feminist Points” on how sexism becomes a slotting machine).

Sometimes it seems as exhausting to notice sexism as it does to experience sexism!

And maybe we can learn from this sense that can add to our own exhaustion; this sense that we can be exhausted all over again. It might even feel like it would be easier not to notice sexism at all. In other words, not noticing sexism might be one way we can deal with the sexism we experience (as if without registering sexism at the level of consciousness it would not exist for us in quite the same way). If noticing is like a feminist button, one that has been turned on, sometimes it might seem easier if we could just turn it off: to turn off.

Audre Lorde taught me how turning toward what is difficult is politically necessary, even if this turning can at times feel like we are making life more difficult for ourselves. She teaches us how some difficulties – when we come up against a world because of the body we have – resist being comprehended when they are experienced. In Sister Outsider (1984), Audre Lorde describes words like racism and sexism as “grown up words”: which means we encounter racism and sexism before we have the words that allow us to describe what we are encountering. Words can then allow us to get closer to our own experiences; words can allow us to comprehend what we experience after the event. We become retrospective witnesses of our becoming. Sexism as well as racism: if they are problems we have given names, the names tend to lag behind the problems.

Perhaps not having names is a way of turning away from a difficulty that persists. We might try not notice what compromises our existence as a way of feeling less compromised. Not naming a problem in the hope that it will “go away,” often means the problem just remains unnamed.  At the same time, giving the problem a name does not make the problem go away. Maybe it is possible that to give the problem a name can be experienced as magnifying the problem; allowing something to acquire a social and physical density by gathering up what otherwise remain scattered experiences into a tangible thing. Alternatively, making sexism tangible is a way of making sexism outside of oneself, something that can be spoken of and addressed by and with others. We have different tactics for dealing with sexism, and one difficulty I suspect for feminism is that those tactics can be in tension. Feminists who give the problem a name can then become a problem for those who do not want to register that there is a problem (but who, at another level, know that there is a problem). You can cause a problem by not letting a problem recede.

Oh: how empowering to speak to those who recognise what you are talking about! I have found this to be the case in relation to racism as well as sexism: the relief when we use these words and there is the flicker of recognition. Yes, that, that!  But so often that is not who we are speaking to. We speak without flickers. We speak to walls.

And: you keep hearing justifications of sexism that take the form of denying that something is sexist or even denials that sexism exists at all. You keep coming up against justifications of omissions or exclusions as how things just “happened to happen.” When you give a problem a name you become the problem, unwilling to participate (I called this in an earlier post, “the problem of perception“).  To be unwilling to participate is often to be defined as unwilling to “take it,” or “get it,” to be humourless by not taking “it” as a joke, by being harmed by what is “harmless,” what was intended as “harmless.” It is part of sexist culture to identify those who describe culture as sexist as causing their own harm in experiencing something as harmful.

And: you keep noticing what might not even appear to others or if it does appear, is justified and neutralised as the way things are. You come up against what others are invested in not even recognising. Experiences of sexism are alienating, and so too is the experience of having your experience denied or refuted. When we talk about sexism we encounter the sexism we are talking about. Women’s testimonies are ridiculed, laughed at, ignored. Women end up having to say the same things over again and again. If sexism is at stake in how women are not listened to, then women are not listened to when they talk about sexism. When we name what we come up against, we come up against what we name.

Sexism makes it costly for women to speak about sexism. Because after all to name something as sexist is not only to name something that happens as part of a wider system, but it is also to give an account of something as wrong and unjustifiable. To name something as sexist is not only to modify a relation by modifying our understanding of that relation; it is to insist that further modification is required; it is a demand for transformation. When we say “that’s sexist,” we are saying “no” to that, as well as “no” to the world that renders such speech or behaviour permissible; we are asking individuals to change as we are saying that these forms of speech and behaviour are no longer acceptable or permissible.

Not just individuals: the point is that individuals are encouraged to participate (and even rewarded for participating) in sexist culture: institutional sexism. Academic sexism is everyday sexism and institutional sexism. Indeed, the anti-authoritarian stance amongst many academics (the self-perception of being critical, oppositional, as I discuss here) can make sexism even more of a problem. When you challenge so-called banter as a form of social exclusion, when you explain how sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination, you tend to be positioned as a bureaucrat, as the one assuming and enacting authority by trying to prevent or block the ordinary vitality of speech and behaviour. Contemporary anti-feminism thus often dismisses feminism as “moralizing,” as pointing the finger at those who have failed to act in accordance with social norms that are not their own (norms that become understood as impositions). The figure of the humourless feminist is then quickly aligned with management; the ones who are imposing from the “top down” a set of norms to govern the behaviour of others. Behaving or speaking in a sexist way can become a way of enacting a freedom from norms, a way of being that occupies space all the more effectively by self-assembling as oppositionality. But sexism is precisely how spaces become unavailable to some (those who are unwilling to participate in a culture that sexualises some bodies). The fantasy of spaces as egalitarian can participate in the enactment of logics that render them deeply unequal spaces – indeed can make those spaces hostile and unliveable for those who are unwilling to participate in the terms being used.

Note these terms: willing to participate, unwilling to participate. Perhaps the institutionalisation of sexism differentiates between those who are willing to participate and those who are not. Sometimes we might become willing to participate as the costs of not being willing have been made too high (my forthcoming book Willful Subjects explores this intimacy of force and will). And note: when you are willing to participate you might receive some benefits. This is how, I suspect, some women become invested in reproducing sexist culture. One time a woman relays to me how she was in a job interview and a man asks her where she is from (some of us are always asked this question as our being is in question) and then comments to her that mixed race women are beautiful. I was outraged when she told me this, but she shrugged it off: and said it was a compliment; she was offered the position. What a history I suspect is implied here: a history of how we shrug things off as a way of “getting on” with things. I would use words like “racism” and “sexism” to describe how she became reducible to looks, rendered exotic spectacle, but for her these words would probably have been experienced as impositions, as potentially requiring her to give up an opportunity that was available, to give up something, all over again.

These are complicated scenarios: you can receive some benefits by adapting yourself to a system that is, at another level, compromising your capacity to inhabit a world on more equal terms. I think for many women becoming willing to participate in sexist culture is a compromise, even if it is not registered as such, because we have been taught (from past experience, from what we come up against) that being unwilling to participate can mean to be threatened with annihilation. You risk becoming alienated from all of the existing structures that enable survival within an institution, let alone support a progression.

Sexualised banter is how women are called back to bodies, to how they appear or look; it is part of the same system that prevents women from (being valued as) contributing to social and intellectual life. In the academy, I would thus argue that this kind of banter is on the same continuum with citational practices that (aim to) reproduce a male genealogy, in which “thought” as such becomes something that happens “between men,” to borrow the title of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s (1985) book on homosociality. I have had so many experiences within the academy of how intellectual life is assumed as “between men,” even as a female feminist professor (this even is probably misplaced).

One time a male professor writes an email in which he mentions a new female colleague appointed to his centre. He notes her credentials. And then he writes that she was a student of such-and-such male professor. He then adds for emphasis “Yes, the” such-and-such male professor, who was taught by another such-and-such male professor, and was friends with another such-and-such male professor. Yes the: the letter was gushing about men, passing over the woman quickly to get to the main point. She is mentioned only in relation to men: and the relationship between men (which reads like a closed circle, or a closing of a circle: male teachers, friends, colleagues) is established as the primary relationship.

Sexism: how women are introduced only to be passed over.

Citational practice is where we can witness most clearly how academic and intellectual life is understood as “between men.” I suggested an exercise on twitter: go to the reference lists of a book near to hand, and count how many of the citations are to men and to women. I did my exercise with a book that happened to be on my desk at the time (I was reading it for my project on utility). Out of hundreds of citations to individuals in the index, I could find only a few references to women. One was to a female academic; another was to a woman as the partner of a male artist, another was to a woman referred to as a daughter of a man.

Sexism: women as existing only in relation to men; women as female relatives.

I tweeted this finding, and the author replied that I had described the patterns right as “they were in the traditions that influenced” him. Male academics can justify how they reproduce sexism as a measure of being influenced. It is interesting that justifying sexism is one of the few times that passivity (x is in what I read so x is in what I write) becomes a masculine virtue!  Men justify their own sexism because it is what they receive from other men (sexism becomes both in what they receive and how they receive what they receive). Sexism, in other words, by being accepted as “in the pattern” or “in the traditions” is rendered not only acceptable but inevitable. The gap between inheritance and reproduction is not only narrowed but eliminated.

Sexism: the elimination of a gap between inheritance and reproduction.

And another time I had a conversation with someone on Facebook about the masculinist nature of a certain field of philosophy, they responded with a “well of course,” as if it to say well of course it is like that, it is the philosophy of technology.  I have begun calling these kinds of arguments disciplinary fatalism: the assumption that in becoming a point on a line we can only reproduce that line. Disciplinary fatalism rests on gender fatalism: “boys will be boys” becoming “boys studying toys will be boys studying toys.”

Sexism: a bond of fate, a fatal bond.

Another time I was invited to speak at a conference on phenomenology. I was sent the calls to papers, which referred to 12 white men and 1 white woman.[1] I pointed out this citational practice and the person who invited me was very apologetic; he said my point made him “feel somewhat ashamed.” Perhaps we learn from this response how feminism becomes dismissible as moralising: as if the point of making feminists points is to shame others, to make them feel bad. The discourse of moralising is about how feminist ideas are received not how they are sent out (you can feel bad as a way of doing nothing, we send out these letters because we want something to be done). In his email in response to mine, he then says he knew of feminists and scholars of colour working in this area and gives an explanation of why he does not cite them: “I believe my predominant mentioning of white men and the deficits in their theorizing is – in an unreflected way – owed to the circumstance that I do try to also cater to my more conservative colleagues, who I feel might need a kind of reassurance, achieved by citing people they are well acquainted with.” Remember he has already said he himself knew of females and people of colour working in the field so by “people” he means other white men. Sexism as a citational practice is also a catering system; justified as a form of reassurance, a way of keeping things familiar for those who want to conserve the familiar. Sexism becomes a system of acquaintance, a friendship network, a kinship network, something that men do on behalf of other men, to reassure other men that the system in which they reproduce themselves will be reproduced.

Sexism: an assured system for reassurance.

Another time, when I pointed out that a speaker list including only white men and I was described as doing “identity politics,” as if pointing out structure is to rely on identity (or even, to put it more strongly, as if all you are doing is projecting your own identity onto the situation such that when you are describing who is missing you are simply concerned with being missing yourself). White male genealogy is protected by the assumption that anyone who challenges that genealogy suffers from self-obsession. It is ironic, really, or perhaps not: you do not need to assert yourself when the genealogy does it for you.

Sexism: male genealogy as self-reflection.

A lot of what I call “diversity work,” translates into the additional effort required to inhabit and move in a world when you do not inherit the body of privilege. Sexism as a system supports and eases the progression of male bodies. We have seen how this happens with citational practice: men cite men as a way of being and staying acquainted with each other.  But sexism also eases progression through the distribution of labour. I remember reading an academic reference when a young male academic was described as “the next Zygmunt Bauman.” I have no doubt that such expectations can be experienced as pressure points. But think about the narrative of next-ness: there is a waiting for the next such-and-such, such that when a body arrives who “can” inherit that position; they are given that position. And then: you are perceived as the next such-and-such, you might be given more time to become him.

Sexism: an inheritance system in which men are freed up to take the place of other men.

More time to become him, translates as, more time to develop your ideas, your thoughts, your research. A way is cleared that enables or eases the progression of some bodies. And that way is cleared by requiring that others do the less valued work, house work, the work that is required for the reproduction of their existence.  If your way is not cleared, you might become part of the clearing system for others, doing the work they are released from doing.  Sexism enables the passage of some bodies to be eased. And sexism slows other bodies down, women’s bodies; holds them up, stops them moving forward at the same rate. The distribution of labour within the academy remains as we know deeply gendered. We need to call this what it is: sexism.

Unequal pay is the end product of a sexism that goes “all the way down.”

And sexism is reproduced by the techniques for justifying whilst concealing that reproduction. When the word “sexism” is dismissed, what we then often witness is a defence of the status quo: it is a way of saying, there is nothing wrong with this, what is wrong is the judgment that there is something wrong with this. The very systematic nature of sexism is obscured because of the systematic nature of sexism: so many of those incidents that wear us down, that we don’t speak of, that we have learnt not to speak of. We have learnt to sever the connection between this event, and that, between this experience and that. To make a connection is thus to restore what has been lost (where loss should be understood as an active process); it is to generate a different picture. Apparently unrelated phenomena, things that seems “just to happen,” to fall this way or that, become part of a system, a system that works.

Sexism: we need to throw a spanner in the works, to stop the system from working. Before we can do that, we have to recognize that there is a system. And we have to recognize that it is working.



Ahmed, Sara (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press.

Bates, Laura (2014). Everyday Sexism. London: Simon and Schuster.

Frye, Marilyn (1983). The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg,NY: Crossing Press

Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: TheCrossing Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1985). Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press.

[1] I have been invited to quite a few conferences as a speaker when the calls for papers refers exclusively or almost exclusively to white men. I obviously need to do more work to advance my stance as a feminist killjoy! But this is very interesting: a feminist of colour can be invited as a speaker without any modification of the intellectual genealogy being offered. Perhaps the invitation to be inserted into this genealogy can become another way of asserting the genealogy: no modification required, if our bodies come to “stand for” that modification. In other words an invitation to somebody who is not male, not white, can be how maleness and whiteness keep their place.  And this is exactly how diversity works: by adding colour to the body of whiteness that body “springs back” into shape. On “Walls of Whiteness” see here.


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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11 Responses to Problems with Names

  1. Michael says:

    Yes. It is important to be able to touch, to hold and examine and say ‘this thing. This tangible, identifiable thing. This is the problem.’

    (I have many more thoughts on this but then I realised I’d be repeating what you already said so well)

    I really like your blog.

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