Why I Don't Join Women's Organizations

by Janis Cortese

This one's gonna be hard to read, just to warn you.

I've always been enthusiastic about women networking, the creation of the "old girl's club" to balance the heavy bias towards men in the corporate workplace. I've dealt with sexism in professional settings, and I know what it can be like. So I've gone over all the pluses in my mind as to why women should network, and what the benefits would be.

Problem is, I'm not sure I believe it anymore.

Oh, it's not all peaches and cream among the men, that's fer sher. What I'm saying is that it's not all perfect among the women, either, and for some pretty easy-to-understand reasons. First I'll go over the events that have led me to this awareness, and then I'll try my hand at explaining what causes it.

(For any men who are reading this feeling smug and looking forward to finding out all the "nasty, ugly dirt" behind the "women's movement," do me a big favor and go sit on your thumb. If society hadn't been so overbalanced against us to start with, this wouldn't even be an issue. Beside, this isn't the Women's Movement[tm], like with the secret handshakes and clubhouses. If you honestly think that the women's movement consists of that, you need far more rudimentary education that I can provide here.)

Webgrrls, and Deflated Expectations

I heard about it the same way you guys did, through the Cybergrrl thing and Aliza Sherman, who by all accounts is a very interesting, bright, motivated, and genuine woman. I've heard her give interviews and have been impressed, and I'd probably like her if I were to meet her in person.

But one of the organizations she founded, Webgrrls, doesn't seem to live up to the feminist-informed expectations that women are natural communicators and networkers who will have like, tons of fun learning and teaching together. My first experience was joining a southern California chapter. To say that it was a narcolepsy convention is an understatement. Networking? Enthusiasm? Get real. Maybe some 30 women were on the mailing list, and five or so might show up to the meeting, on a good night. No one was getting involved, no one was learning a thing. I joined to teach, and to learn. I tried to teach. I tried. It ended up being an exercise in futility and inertia. When you bust your ass putting together a two-lecture series on the use of perl for CGI and two people show up, it sends a signal. When the list talks seriously about dues and classes and shaking up the organization and six people show up to the next meeting to discuss it, it sends a signal. The signal is that this group is a waste of time.

So, up to northern California, where I found the other extreme of women's organizations -- the catty, bilious, nasty extreme. One off-topic e-mail, clearly marked as off-topic, was posted, not by me. I replied to it, with a two or three sentence reply.

These women, who were supposed to be technically savvy, proceded to savage me for posting something off-topic (which was allowed by the charter), and my post defending myself was rejected.

It's probably pertinent that the exchange went something like this:

Sent by the original poster: "Hey, just as a conversational aside, what sorts of foods do you guys like? What kind of food is worth gaining weight for to you?"

My reply: "Well, being Italian, I think that most foods are great. I'm lucky enough not to worry about weight, but I'd guess that thai food would be worth any risk."

And thus started the spouts of flame -- directed to me for posting the question. What -- these like, totally, with-it like techgrrls can't read a damned mail header?

The worst flame came from a woman who prefaced her entire message with something like, "I have a reputation for being a complete obnoxious bitch who hammers people without mercy, so here goes." I suppose that makes it okay? Calling yourself a bitch gives you carte blanche for pissing all over someone, and then blaming them for getting annoyed? She might think it was a Woman Being In Control of Herself. I call it passive-aggressive with a twist.

The only "apology" I got -- if it could be dignified with that word -- was from a woman who wrote me saying that she was sorry for flaming me, but that since I didn't worry about my weight, I was probably so happy that her flame didn't bother me. Whee. Yet one more example of how women can be vicious bitches when the topic of weight comes up. Happy because I'm thin? My spine is degenerating and my knees barely work. Wanna trade, Plumpy?

And I remind you -- this was a professional organization. Women who were supposed to network and spread resources such as jobs around. A professional organization, acting like either a bunch of narcoleptics or a gaggle of vicious high schoolers?

Women who pat themselves on the back for being so revolutionary because they know how to write a few lines of HTML, who then fall right back into the same old female stereotypes of the catty gossipy bitch who hates or likes other women depending on their weight or who acts like a passive-aggressive creep? Yeah, real revolutionary. Is that how they're spelling "reactionary" now?

What the hell is going on?

Later than night a friend called just to ask me for a copy of a paper I had written. When she asked me how I was doing, I told her that I was ticked off, and why.

This friend was also once a lieutenant in the Air Force, and is now a librarian. She's a member of almost every librarian's organization you can name, most of which are overwhelmingly women. She was also involved in women's organizations in the AF.

She told me that the library ones are professional, cordial, welcoming, goal oriented, and networking. And that the AF one was catty, vicious, nasty, and filled with piranhas elbowing one another aside and competing with each other.

Why? Well, the first organization is understood to be mostly women, but it's not the whole point to their being together. They are together because they are libarians, not because they are women librarians. The AF women, however, were in a heavily male-dominated environment, and hence probably felt that they had to compete with one another.

I think there's also something else going on, though. The women in the librarian associations are used to being around a lot of women in a professional context. The AF women, though -- and the techie women in these Webgrrls groups?

The last time they were around a lot of women was in junior high. That's the behavior mode they associate with large groups of women, and that's the behavior mode they fall into in those situations. Either they

Other friends of mine agreed that women they knew or even themselves have gotten some of the most vicious attacks of all directed their way from women in all-woman groups. Supposedly cordial groups of women, newsgroups and such, can be the most surgically savage when it comes to flames. I got off of both Webgrrls lists and will never waste my time with them again. [*] Another friend of mine left one of them in Texas for similar reasons. She also left a list of anthropologist women for the same reason. Frustrated with the sexism of the men's anthro list, she joined a woman's list and found nastiness and Orwellian censorship that made it completely worthless. Another friend got off of one of the needlecraft newsgroups because of the nastiness of the flamage.

Sure, men have gotten in our way in the past and still do, and we have to work to overcome this. But whoever said that women were all sweet and connection oriented and compassionate all the time must not have been of this Earth.

And it makes it hard for women who really are trying to break into male dominated environments. The men diss you -- and the other women try to rip your entrails out. I've found the best sense of connection and understanding with other like-minded women such as the friends who put up this site. But I no longer extend my gratitude to them for that social space to all women automatically. I no longer assume that every group of women will be as great as the very, very special group of women here.

I hate to say this, I really do. I've always been enthusiastic about women's professional organizations and such. I'm still involved in this web site with five other women tech-head friends, so I'm not totally signing off. I'll always network for women's issues with friends, and my clsoest friends do happen to be women, like minded women. But I'm no longer going to walk into an organization of women assuming that it'll be grand. I'm no longer motivated to join a group of women just because it is a group of women.

I might also add that I'm well versed in perl, HTML, Photoshop, and JavaScript, and that I have worked as an adjunct professor of physics. I know how to put up pages, and I know how to teach others how to. As this site attests, I'm interested in women's issues and in talking about them. Who benefited from my leaving?

Copyright © 1999 by Janis Cortese

07/04/07 at 16:26